Fresno Unified is turning to a familiar face to take over as permanent superintendent, although the selection apparently is not yet a done deal.
The district announced late Saturday – two days before the new school year begins – that interim Superintendent Bob Nelson is the “finalist” for superintendent to take over for Michael Hanson, who was terminated without cause in January.
“The board is pleased to announce Robert G. Nelson will continue in the process with hopes to approve the district’s next leader by Aug. 23,” the district’s news release stated. “Contract negotiations will presume as the final stage in the search process.”
There was a pool of 25 candidates to lead what is the fourth-largest school district in California. Nelson originally was seen as a short-term answer, though trustees in a rare unanimous decision opted in February to stick with him until a hire was made.
In an interview Sunday, Nelson said the last few months have been a chance to “test drive” the job, and he realized it was an opportunity to “make a dent in the universe.”
“It’s a real opportunity to make substantive decisions that positively affect the lives of kids and families,” he said. “And once you start doing that, you realize you really have the opportunity to do great things."
Nelson said he believe his leadership style is open and collaborative, and is what the district needs at this point. Among the things he hopes to tackle, he said, are resolving a new contract with the Fresno Teachers Association, expanding educational opportunities for families and listening to and learning from others.
“I'm looking forward to working with the people, make sure they feel heard, and make sure all of us are focused on the key issues,” he said.
Nelson, a long-time district employee, was Hanson’s chief of staff from August 2015 until Hanson was terminated earlier this year. He served a little over three years as superintendent of Chawanakee Unified School District in North Fork. Before that, he spent more than 20 years as an educator and administrator in Fresno Unified, including time as an administrator in the district’s human resources/labor relations office.
On Twitter, Nelson was posting photos and tweets reflecting stops at district facilities Sunday. Students return to class on Monday.
Board president Brooke Ashijan declined to discuss Nelson's hiring, saying he did not wish to speak for the whole board. He added that he believes Nelson should be able to speak for himself. Trustee Claudia Cazares also declined to answer questions about Nelson, but said the school board would be releasing more information on Monday. Other trustees could not be reached for comment.
Tish Rice, president of the Fresno Teachers Association, which is in the midst of a bitter contract negotiation with the district, said she was hopeful that Nelson would chart a new direction for the district.
“I hope that Bob takes action to move Fresno Unified into a positive direction instead of just merely continuing the policies of our former superintendent. I also hope that he invests in people and not in programs. Someone who sees us as the professionals we are and works to really build a positive relationship with the educators in this district in order to improve in academic achievements because we haven’t had that in the past.”
She added: “He’s a people person so he understands relationships. And to our educators, relationships are important, and by settling our contract (he) will really demonstrate that he has the ability to move our district forward.”
Nelson has been filling in since a divided Fresno Unified board terminated Hanson. The former superintendent’s firing came shortly after he announced plans to step down amid a federal investigation of the district’s construction contracts – though he said the controversy did not influence his decision.
Nelson was first named acting superintendent immediately after Hanson’s termination to fill in until the district could hire an interim superintendent. Weeks later, the board – in a rare unanimous decision – named Nelson as the interim superintendent while it searched for a permanent replacement.
At the time, Nelson said he would not rule out applying for the permanent position, but added he already had a busy schedule, pointing to his seven children, the pursuit of his doctorate degree at the University of Southern California and teaching a class once a week at Fresno State.
“That’s a lot, on top of leading the fourth-largest school district in California,” Nelson said then. “So I think it’s an opportunity for me to kind of feel out the job, and an opportunity for (the board) to see if I am the kind of individual or leader that they would want at the helm. It has to be a fit. The board has to be comfortable. I’m here to support their efforts to find the best possible candidate, whatever that should mean.”
Fresno Unified has about 74,000 students and about 10,000 employees.