We served on the FUSD Superintendent’s Advisory Task Force that produced the “Choosing our Future” report in 2004.
Fresno Unified was broke and broken then. Superintendent Santiago Wood had been fired because fiscal mismanagement had left the district on the verge of a state takeover. Counselors, music programs and library hours had been cut. More than 50% of district schools were ranked in the bottom 10% in the state.
Former Clovis Superintendent Walt Buster and former FUSD Superintendent Chuck McCully served as interim leaders while our task force put together a district turnaround plan and a search for a new superintendent was conducted. It wasn’t easy to find someone willing to rescue the district from the mess it had become.
We got lucky. Mike Hanson – a young, bright educator with boundless energy and a passion for giving children a better education – turned out to be the leader the district needed. In his first 18 months on the job, he replaced 27 of the top 36 administrative people. Today, the district has a staff that is envied across the state.
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As the Fresno Bee said in a recent editorial, “Mike Hanson gave his all for Fresno Unified” and “his overall record is filled with accomplishments that have uplifted a generation of students and benefited the community.”
Academic achievement improved every year during Hanson’s tenure. Graduation rates surpassed the state average. District finances are strong and ready for the economic downturn that is certain to come. Technology has gone from worst to best. The Equity and Access Department has created a world-class data system to support student success. Facilities have been improved, and Career Technical Education offerings have been vastly improved. The Patino School, the first high school in the nation focused on entrepreneurship, is a model others look to emulate.
Hanson would be the first to say that much remains to be done, particularly for children living in our poorest communities. Having seen where we were in 2004, we would say we’re 12 years into a 24-year transformation. The focus of FUSD trustees, staff and community should be on accelerating progress for kids – not on adult dramas.
Last December, after receiving his 13th consecutive positive evaluation, Hanson gave notice that he planned to leave in August – allowing for stable leadership while the school board searched for his replacement. Instead, he was abruptly terminated by a new board majority that appears more interested in exercising power than ensuring stability for our children.
Where do we go? The overarching goal should be to attract a strong field of candidates for the permanent superintendent’s job. We need to get on with that process because spring is when superintendents are recruited. At least four major California districts will be looking for superintendents.
We’re in a very different situation now than we were in 2004. We have positive momentum in virtually all areas and an enviable financial position. We need someone who will help us accelerate progress, particularly on academic achievement.
Only two things stand in the way of our ability to recruit an exceptional superintendent. One is board dissension. No good candidate is coming to work in a district on a 4-3 vote of the board. And no self-respecting candidate is going to apply for a job suspecting that she or he is going to be micromanaged by the board. It’s the responsibility of the board chair to build consensus and ensure the board properly understands the different governance role of trustees and the superintendent.
While the search is on, we need an interim superintendent to provide stability. That appointment needs to be made immediately to remove continuing uncertainty. Urgency will prevent community engagement, but the appointment should reflect board consensus.
The selection of the permanent superintendent is a different matter. Community input is critically important. Our recommendation is that each trustee appoint three members to a superintendent selection committee, one of whom must have a strong background in education, while the others are selected to ensure our diverse community is well represented. That committee should hold town-hall meetings to solicit input on what kind of qualities we want in the new superintendent.
The bar is set high. We urge the board to come together to attract a great superintendent to build on the work Mike Hanson started.
Pete Weber and Sarah Woolf are Fresno civic leaders who served on the FUSD Superintendent’s Advisory Task Force that produced the Choosing our Future report in 2004.