Michael Hanson announced Monday he is stepping down as Fresno Unified superintendent, leaving a school district he helped save from bankruptcy upon his arrival a decade ago, but one that now is embroiled in a federal investigation.
Hanson, who has led the state’s fourth-largest school district since 2005, has not said what his next career move is, but plans to honor his contract through August “to ensure minimal disruption” to the district.
“It is with mixed emotions that I stand with you here today. This is not easy for me,” Hanson said Monday at a meeting of district principals.
Hanson’s decision comes after a tumultuous year, amid an FBI investigation of Fresno Unified’s no-bid construction contracts that has put him under much scrutiny since the district was served with a subpoena in August 2015.
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At the principals meeting, Hanson, 51, said his departure does not mean he is done “fighting for kids” and had to compose himself when talking about his wife, Julie Montali – who helps lead Fresno Unified’s early learning department – and their three children. Leaving the district will give him “more time with people who have taken a back seat to my professional work for a decade.”
This decision did not come easy, but I am confident that we have created a solid foundation for the next leader of this amazing district.
Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson
Hanson publicly denied rumors in September that he was resigning. “I’m not looking for a new job,” he said then. “I’m employed by our board. I work for the kids of the city, and I love it.”
Gaston Middle School principal Felicia Quarles-Treadwell said she will miss Hanson immensely.
“He has a drive to do what’s right for children and courage when it wasn’t comfortable,” she said. “He’s been a voice for children, for families.”
Bullard High School principal Carlos Castillo said, “I don’t think I will have a superintendent in my career that will stay that long or one who will push us that hard to do our jobs well.”
While Hanson has his critics – including some Fresno Unified trustees – and has faced calls to step down, the district has improved under his leadership despite unique obstacles, like the district’s high poverty rate and number of English learners.
When Hanson was hired, the district was in such financial trouble that it was on the verge of a state takeover. The district’s $1 billion budget is now stable. This year was the first time Fresno Unified improved scores on state standardized tests at every grade level – though the district still lags behind the state average when it comes to academics.
In November, Hanson received a 4-2 positive evaluation with trustees Carol Mills and Brooke Ashjian voting against him for the second year in a row. Board president Luis Chavez – who is leaving to serve on the Fresno City Council – also voiced his disapproval of Hanson, but was not present for the official vote.
While Ashjian and Mills have been among Hanson’s biggest critics this year, the trustees had only positive things to say Monday.
“I wish him well,” Ashjian said. “He came into the district ... and we’re financially in better shape.”
Mills thanked him for his years of service to the district and said, “I expect the board will in the near future address the steps to take to conduct a search for a new superintendent.”
I just am hopeful that his resignation translates into a renewed focus on our students.
Fresno Teachers Association President Tish Rice
In a news release, Fresno Unified laid out Hanson’s “significant milestones,” including guiding the district “to today’s tremendous academic success” and improving facilities.
Fresno Teachers Association President Tish Rice, though, questions those claims, saying the district still is struggling. Last year, the FTA called for Hanson and other top leaders to be suspended until the FBI investigation concludes, but the board did not take action.
“When you look at the lease-leaseback investigation and the performance of our students academically, kids are struggling and our educators are struggling to do what’s necessary to support them,” she said. “I just am hopeful that his resignation translates into a renewed focus on our students and their academics, and on better working conditions for the folks that work for the kids.”
Hanson, who worked as an associate superintendent for Elk Grove Unified near Sacramento before coming to Fresno, is the president of the CORE districts – a collaboration among California’s largest school districts.
His commitment to students extends well beyond California’s Central Valley.
Rick Miller, executive director of the CORE Districts
Rick Miller, executive director of the CORE Districts, said Hanson’s leadership goes beyond Fresno Unified.
“His commitment to students extends well beyond California’s Central Valley, and his professional contributions have positively influenced thousands of educators and millions of students in the state,” Miller said in an email. “Mike is, and he will continue to be, a champion for innovation, accountability and continuous improvement in our urban schools.”
Hanson grew up in the westside town of Dos Palos before attending UCLA and Harvard University. He is among the highest-paid public school superintendents in the state, bringing in $369,992 in total pay and benefits last year.
In an interview in 2006, Hanson said that his friends would describe him as driven – maybe too driven.
“They would say that I’m – and you really need to quote this – that I’m really, really funny, that I probably worry too much and that I sometimes push beyond what most people would think is reasonable,” Hanson told a Bee reporter.