Is Bob Nelson right for Fresno Unified? The new board may have its say

Fresno Unified Superintendent Bob Nelson says he wants the district Board of Trustees to re-evaluate his job performance at a future meeting amid a clash with a new trustee who would like to see the district progress at a faster rate.

“The board needs to decide if I’m their guy,” Nelson said. “I’m committed to the work and I intend to stay for as long as possible, but the board as a whole should decide if my leadership style is what they want.”

Nelson had initially proposed the evaluation for the Jan. 16 meeting, but it was not put on the agenda on Friday.

The move is unexpected, as Nelson was last evaluated just four months ago when he received unanimously positive marks from the pre-election board. He’s entering the third year of a three-year contract with the district after taking over from ousted superintendent Michael Hanson. Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas, who was president of the board during Nelson’s last evaluation, deferred comment to current board president Claudia Cazares, who did not respond.

The board saw three new members added after the November election, including Terry Slatic, a retired Marine Corps major who said he has been visiting school sites as part of his new role and found some areas lacking in oversight. Slatic said he would not be surprised if Nelson’s request was a function of Slatic’s work, which has included reporting the issues he encounters multiple times per week.

“Fresno Unified is a $1.3 billion organization with specious accountability at best and no accountability at worst,” he said. “The problems at Fresno Unified are no longer Mr. Hanson’s problems that [Nelson has] inherited, they’re his problems.”

Nelson became superintendent as district teachers considered a strike, a move that was ultimately avoided. Fresno Teachers Association president Manuel Bonilla said Nelson has worked hard throughout his tenure to change the negative culture in the district into a positive one.

“Simultaneously – and that’s not to say this is at odds – going forward, he needs to listen to all the stakeholders, and then also outline his vision for the district,” Bonilla said. “This is where the rubber meets the road.”

All in the timing?

Slatic said one of the problems he surveyed was dry rot on the roof of Fresno High, the result of improperly installed swamp coolers that had not been inspected according to the provisions of the education code.

“Dry rot doesn’t happen in one or two or five years,” Slatic said. “A saying we have in the Marine Corps is that bad news does not get better with age. Another one is, ‘Don’t let your chain of command be surprised.’”

Slatic said he has asked staff to put together a “failure analysis” of other possible facilities shortcomings, and that he views the ability to walk into any room at the district and ask questions as his right as a trustee.

“I am not patient,” Slatic said. “We’re interested in accountability and results. Effort no longer counts.”

The Fresno Unified board agenda for the Wednesday, June 13, 2018 meeting states that Superintendent Bob Nelson recommends approving a community survey about a parcel tax. The superintendent’s office also noted that approving the survey does not commit the board to moving forward with the tax itself. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA Fresno Bee file

Nelson said that rapid change may not be realistic at an organization the size of Fresno Unified, the fourth-largest school district in the state, but that that’s not a reason to abandon lofty goals. While test scores remain lower than the district would like to see, all demographic groups have shown improvement, Nelson said as an example.

Nelson also said he’s interested in mutual transparency from trustees.

“I think you need to tell the whole story when talking about the district,” Nelson said. “If you’re saying everything is great, that’s a hustle. But at the same time, if you’re saying everything is terrible, then you haven’t been paying attention to the last five years of our trajectory.”

Board of Trustees

  • Claudia Cazares, Hoover region
  • Carol Mills, Fresno High region

  • Valerie Davis, Sunnyside region
  • Veva Islas, McLane region
  • Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas, Roosevelt region
  • Terry Slatic, Bullard region
  • Keshia Thomas, Edison region

If you go: The board’s first meeting of 2019 is Wednesday, Jan. 16 at the district office, 2309 Tulare St. in downtown Fresno. Closed session begins at 4:30 p.m., public session scheduled to start at 6 p.m.

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Aleksandra Appleton covers schools for the Fresno Bee. She grew up in Fresno before attending UC San Diego and the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.