Bill McEwen

When will the best man for Fresno Unified’s top job finally be a woman?

Now that Fresno Unified board President Brooke Ashjian has announced that trustees will select a new superintendent before the start of the school year, I am crossing my fingers they will pick the right woman for this demanding job.

It’s shocking but true. Never in the long history of California’s fourth-largest school district has the board seen fit to entrust a female educator with its top leadership position.

We’ve seen all types of leaders come and go. There have been smooth talkers (Santiago Wood), those selected by Fresno insiders (Michael Hanson) and those who might have steered the under-performing district in the right direction had they stayed long enough to give it a broad-shouldered effort (Carlos Garcia).

There have been superintendents who were star athletes (Jake Abbott) and experts in organization (Chuck McCully). There have been more interim superintendents than you can shake a stick at.

Everyone single one of them has been male.

Worthy talent pool

And that’s more than weird when you consider that about 116 years ago the state Legislature signed off on building our city’s leading university in response to a teacher shortage. The Fresno State Normal School, its graduates mostly female, filled an urgent need for teachers in the central San Joaquin Valley and throughout the state.

All these years later, with Fresno State boasting the highly respected Kremen School of Education and Human Development, not even one of the many thousands of female educators with a Fresno State diploma on their résumé has been handed the keys to Fresno Unified.

Buried somewhere in the district’s mission statement must be a line that says, “Women can teach our children and they can be in charge of some important departments, but they can never reach the top.”

Even conservative Clovis Unified, with its high test scores and wealthy ZIP codes, has boldly gone where Fresno Unified has refused to go – twice. Janet Young began as a first-grade teacher at Tarpey Elementary in 1979 and 32 years later was named superintendent. When she announced her retirement this spring, trustees quickly selected district administrator Eimear O’Farrell as the new superintendent.

Now I don’t think for a moment that Clovis Unified trustees said, “Hey, Janet did a great job. Let’s hire another woman.” But I do think their eyes were open to the fact that the best fit for the district might be a highly skilled and highly motivated woman.

That’s a big difference from the attitude at Fresno Unified, where the next superintendent has always been a man. Rain or shine, in good times and bad, Fresno Unified follows the same blueprint: It tells its new superintendent to hire his staff.

Time for fresh thinking

Why has Fresno Unified limited its superintendent talent pool? For many years, the good-old-boy network called the shots and simply couldn’t imagine the possibility of a woman overseeing the district. They had blinders on, and the district – along with all of Fresno – has suffered for it.

And now with the district trying to get out from under Hanson’s autocratic, top-down management style and three-card Monte handling of academic performance, there are trustees who might believe that this isn’t the time to turn revolutionary and hire a woman.

When, exactly, will it be the right time?

In Fresno, we have had a woman mayor. Ashley Swearengin did a superlative job. Our new city manager is Wilma Quan-Schecter. The Fresno County sheriff is Margaret Mims. The district attorney is Lisa Smittcamp, whose predecessor was Elizabeth Egan. These are all tough assignments. Yet the glass ceiling is still in place at Fresno Unified, which has no place to go but up.

My plea to the seven Fresno Unified trustees is this: Be open to the possibilities. Twenty-five candidates have applied. A few of them surely are women. Don’t think for a moment that the job might be too big or the challenges too great for someone of a certain gender. Here in the United States, we have governors, Marine Corps generals and Fortune 500 CEOs who are women.

If the board of directors at General Motors could break tradition and name Mary Barra as its chairman/CEO in 2014, you’d hope that Fresno Unified’s trustees – four of whom are women – could turn the page, too, and give female applicants honest consideration for the superintendent’s job.