The opening act of the Fresno Unified School District trustees meeting Wednesday was something straight out of Shakespeare.
Having ascended to the school board presidency, Trustee Brooke Ashjian rearranged the seating chart, as is his prerogative.
No longer would Superintendent Michael Hanson sit in the middle – sending the message to trustees, staff and the public that Ashjian was in charge.
Hanson instead was sent to the end of the dais by the trustee who has been his most vocal critic. It was the equivalent of seating an adult at the kid’s table for Thanksgiving dinner.
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Hanson left himself vulnerable for the move. Knowing that he no longer could count on a board majority to support his initiatives following the November election, he announced Dec. 12 that he would leave the district come August.
I wouldn’t have gone quite so far. Hanson deserves some appreciation for the body of work he has done in 12 years at Fresno Unified.
Then again, I don’t have the ugly history with Hanson that Ashjian, trustee Carol Mills and previous trustee Michelle Asadoorian do. Trustees who dared to oppose Iron Mike paid a big price. Their requests were ignored. They were kept out of the information loop. Hanson did all in his power to create the impression that they ceased to exist.
The current arrangement – Hanson with one foot out the door and at odds with a majority of trustees on many issues – is not good for the district and should be put to rest quickly.
The trustees should buy out Hanson’s remaining time and appoint an interim superintendent while they, in concert with the community, search for the right person to lead the district.
Powell is ready
There is no question about whom the board should select as the interim superintendent. Larry Powell has the leadership skills, knowledge of the district’s needs, and the personality to do the job – and do it exceedingly well.
And he wants the job. Not in the hope of becoming the permanent superintendent. As he says, “I am too old and like my life too much for that.” Powell simply sees a need. As long as I have known him – going on 30 years now – he has been motivated to serve the community.
“I love Fresno Unified and the city of Fresno,” Powell told me Thursday. “I want to reduce the rhetoric, champion teachers because teaching is very difficult right now, and increase the community’s confidence in the district.”
Powell would step into the job with superb credentials. He is the former superintendent of the Fresno County Office of Education and former Central Unified School District superintendent. He has a track record of effectively engaging diverse communities. And even when he disagrees with you, he treats you like a friend.
Though Powell says that he has not been approached by anyone from the district about being an interim superintendent, he has analyzed Fresno Unified’s situation and formulated a plan in the event the board decides to go that route.
Understand: If he serves, Powell has no interest in being a caretaker. He wants to heal wounds, end sniping among trustees and solve problems so that the next superintendent can be positioned to succeed.
3 agenda items
Powell says that his goals would be to negotiate a new contract with the teachers’ union, improve classroom discipline and ensure that the district is transparent in its dealings with the public and the media.
Some people might say that it would be easy for Powell to hand teachers big raises and saddle the new superintendent with a big financial challenge. Powell says he would not do that. His aim is to spare Hanson’s successor the inevitable bruises of labor negotiations, thus allowing him or her time to gain the union’s trust.
On discipline, Powell is quick to the point: “The district is using the Restorative Justice model for discipline, but without the appropriate restoration. This is damaging the ability to teach and the ability to learn. We have to find the balance of punishment and restoration that puts the teacher back in control of the classroom.”
About transparency, never a Hanson strong suit, Powell says, “When people want information, get it to them as quickly as possible. When you defer and delay, it creates a monster that isn’t even there in the first place.”
A final thought: The trustees should recognize the many good things that Hanson accomplished while leading the state’s fourth-largest school district.
Yes, he played hardball, and there are consequences to that. But the record shows that he took the job when few people wanted it, he righted a troubled ship and he moved the district forward. He deserves the community’s appreciation and respect.
That said, Hanson needs to make this transition about the district and not himself. If he does not, well, that’s on him. He would only be tarnishing his own legacy.