Fresno Unified School Board President calls superintendent search 'rigged'

Gabe Ferris Image
Saturday, March 30, 2024
Fresno Unified School Board President calls superintendent search 'rigged'
The president of the Fresno Unified School Board is speaking out about the district's search for the next superintendent.

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- The president of the Fresno Unified School Board is sounding the alarm as the district searches for a new superintendent to replace outgoing leader Bob Nelson.

"Last week, a narrow majority of the board decided in closed session to forgo (an) external search for applicants and start with internal applicants," Fresno Unified School District Board President Susan Wittrup.

Wittrup says the decision to look at internal applicants came on the heels of this report by Leadership Associates.

The school board hired the firm to conduct community listening sessions, asking stakeholders what they wanted to see in the superintendent.

The firm then generated a report. It says residents want the next Fresno Unified leader to have "strong ties to the community."

But Wittrup claims that is not what residents said.

"It was rigged. You know, it was rigged," she said. "Their voices to ask for an external candidate -- or fresh eyes -- was not included in the report to the board. And I'm hearing that from more than just one or two people. Many people."

Board member Keshia Thomas says that is not true.

"I sat in those listening sessions," Thomas said. "And, what I heard from people in Edison region is that 'We want somebody that understands Fresno.' The idea that this is rigged is ludicrous and it's untrue."

Action News pressed Wittrup on why the firm would "rig" the process. She says they have skin in the game.

"You're saying that this leadership firm actually coaches some folks that work for Fresno Unified, and now they're trying to advance those applicants?" Action News asked. "Yes, our top executives, actually," Wittrup said.

Leadership Associates did not address that in a statement to Action News, but they did say:

"As with many school districts that have internal candidates to consider for the role, it is not uncommon for boards to make the determination to first look at internal candidates prior to considering going externally. Following thorough discussion, the Board determined to first interview internal candidates before considering an external search. The listening sessions were designed to inform the Board of the personal and professional qualities and characteristics and experiential background the public valued in its leader. The question as to whether or not to go internally or externally was not a focal point as that is solely a board decision. This has been a deliberate and thoughtful Board process. Leadership Associates has seen boards be successful with both methods and has no preference."

With the board set to interview internal applicants behind closed doors on Wednesday, Thomas says she is committed to finding the best candidate. Wittrup says the stakes are just too high not to consider outsiders.

"This is a game-changing opportunity for our community to have a superintendent who is the most qualified and the most effective," Wittrup said. "Our kids are struggling."

Before the school board enters a closed session to interview internal applicants on Wednesday, there will be an opportunity for public comment. Wittrup and Thomas both say they are ready to hear from community members.

You can find the petition by clicking here.

For news updates, follow Gabe Ferris on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.