When the firm that’s been tapped to find the next Fresno Unified superintendent asked trustees to identify the single biggest challenge the district’s next leader will face, board member Valerie Davis’ answer drew some laughs.
“Us,” she said. “He or she really has to have a very diplomatic and firm hand with being able to execute his or her work … The toughest thing will be the seven of us.”
As trustees went around the room at a special meeting Monday evening to give their answer, nearly everyone echoed Davis: the new superintendent will have to work with a divided board that’s still reeling from the tumultuous exit of former leader Michael Hanson.
Hanson was terminated without cause in January amid a federal investigation of the district’s no-bid construction contracts. For years, the board seemed to be split into two teams: those who supported him, and those who didn’t.
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Frankly, we had a former superintendent who played politics and divided the board, and the board is still trying to heal and recover from that.
FUSD trustee Carol Mills
“Frankly, we had a former superintendent who played politics and divided the board, and the board is still trying to heal and recover from that,” trustee Carol Mills said at the meeting with Leadership Associates – the firm the district is paying nearly $60,000 to conduct a superintendent search. “Any superintendent walking in is going to have to recognize that and deal with it.”
School board president Brooke Ashjian – one of Hanson’s top critics – said that the next superintendent’s biggest challenge will be the “seven polarizing figures” on the board, himself included.
“It will be navigating the waters and trying to figure out that we all love the same baby, but how do we get there?” he said.
Trustee Cal Johnson said the next superintendent needs to be strong “and not intimidated by board members.”
Trustee Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas said one of the biggest challenges for the superintendent will be “to navigate the different personalities” on the board and throughout the district.
“There are so many different people that want to pull the superintendent, including the board, in different directions,” she said. “That’s great – it’s better than not having anybody engaged. But it’s also a challenge I think the superintendent will have to deal with.”
The toughest thing will be the seven of us.
FUSD trustee Valerie Davis
While trustees agree on what the top challenges will be for the leader of the state’s fourth-largest school district, they have different answers for what they want to see in applicants.
Ashjian said he wants “a God-fearing man – a person of faith that is driven, that understands that we’re here for a higher purpose.” (Both Mills and Davis took issue with that desired requirement.)
Jonasson Rosas wants someone with ties to Fresno. Trustee Claudia Cazares wants someone with experience in low-income and immigrant communities who “actually has a teaching background.”
Mills wants someone familiar with complex California education laws, and Johnson wants someone who values the diversity of the district and will focus on student achievement gaps.
“We need someone who is able to lead – a strong leader willing to recognize the need to support and take charge and move us forward,” trustee Christopher De La Cerda said.
While some board members hope to hire a superintendent by the time students return to class in August, Leadership Associates warned that may be too optimistic. The search firm is proposing a timeline that has the board signing a contract with its next leader by September.
The proposed timeline for the search process includes the board holding community meetings and posting in May an online survey about what the public wants to see in a superintendent, with the deadline for applications ending in July.