Michael Hanson was the right man at the right time for Fresno Unified School District.
Now, following Hanson’s announcement last week that he will leave his superintendent’s post in August of 2017, it is imperative that the district identify and recruit, in concert with community stakeholders, the right man or woman to build upon the good work that he has done over 12 years.
We have disagreed with where Hanson has pointed the district on some issues – most notably the decision by Fresno Unified to award no-bid construction contracts in a manner that attracted the attention of federal investigators.
He also needed to be more transparent. Hanson ordered his staff and lawyers to fight public-records requests, then dragged out the release of documents even when it was determined there was no reason to withhold them. This secretive approach set a negative tone for the latter part of his tenure.
Hanson, too, should have been more collaborative with those who dared to disagree with him. Had he attempted to mend bridges and seek compromise with critics, the pace of the district’s improvement would have accelerated.
Still, his overall record is filled with accomplishments that have uplifted a generation of students and benefited the Fresno community.
Memories always have been short. They have become even shorter amid the instant communication of social media and news cycles that can be as brief as an hour or two. Thus it is important to remember Fresno Unified’s dismal state before Hanson was hired as deputy superintendent April 13, 2005, with the expectation that he would assume control at the start of the next school year.
The district was a financial mess and faced state takeover. By the end of the 2004-05 school year, it was seeking 14 replacements for high-ranking administrators who had retired, resigned or had their contracts bought out. Over the previous two years, the district had replaced more than one-third of its principals, many of them baby boomers ready for retirement.
Here is what we wrote at that time: “It’s time to straighten out the district’s priorities. Fresno Unified is failing its students under every objective measurement. Our children deserve better than what we have been giving them.”
While others saw trouble in every nook and cranny, Hanson viewed the challenge ahead as an opportunity to hire good people, bring stability to a dysfunctional district, then embark on putting the finances in order, improving student performance, building new schools and renovating old ones.
He also saw a chance to better connect Fresno Unified to state and national education leadership groups and to political leaders whose decisions dramatically affect the district’s families.
Under Hanson’s leadership and with the support of the board of trustees, teachers, staff, students and voters, the district has realized those goals.
The finances are solid and include a healthy reserve. Two district construction bond measures were passed. Portable classrooms have been replaced with new construction. Every high school campus has received first-class upgrades in buildings and technology. Instruction in the arts has been restored. And the Phillip J. Patiño School of Entrepreneurship, which opened in 2015, is receiving national attention.
Student performance has improved – particularly at those campuses where students receive additional learning hours daily. And the graduation rate, formerly a black eye for the district, is nearly 84 percent. Having seen a 14 percent increase since 2009, the district’s graduation rate beats the state and national averages.
These improvements have increased community confidence in Fresno Unified and positioned the district for even better days ahead under the next superintendent.
What qualities should this leader have?
In a community as diverse as Fresno, it’s important that the superintendent appreciate the value of engaging families in two-way conversations about their students’ futures. The next superintendent must utilize team-building and not rely on a top-down management style as the means to drive the district forward. We hope, too, that Hanson’s successor closely analyzes data and measures performance – as he has done – when recommending courses of action to trustees.
We see big challenges on the new superintendent’s plate: finding the sweet spot on student discipline; hiring qualified teachers and building new facilities for expanded Career Technical Education offerings; further elevating and supporting student accomplishment (particularly in Special Education); accelerating the proficiency of English Language Learners; closing the achievement gap among students of color; ensuring that students receive rigorous, digital-age instruction; and better collaborating with the teachers’ union.
The most difficult assignment perhaps involves student discipline. The goal should be to provide a nurturing learning environment while not giving up on children who are disruptive. In a district such as Fresno Unified, where many students lack positive role models at home and have been the victim of traumatic – and even violent – experiences, teachers and administrators often face a seemingly impossible balancing act.
The new superintendent must have a track record of implementing or being involved with a successful discipline program and must bring ideas to Fresno Unified that receive buy-in from students and their families, teachers and administrators.
Hanson’s announcement that he will leave this summer was an unselfish act. It provides the trustees, two of whom are new to the board, and the community ample time to find a person whose skill set best matches Fresno Unified’s needs at this time.
Hanson said Tuesday that he “would be shocked if my next move was to another superintendency.”
Whatever path he follows, we wish him the best and thank him for his 12 years of around-the-clock dedication to our community and its children.