Credit: Fresno Unified School District
Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson holds a “I Am Ready College Packet” in October. The initiative provides seniors with information on what colleges they are eligible to apply to, based on their academic profiles, and information to parents on financial aid services and resources.

Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson, the second-longest-serving superintendent of the state’s 30 largest districts, resigned Monday, effective in August. Hanson, 51, has led Fresno, the state’s fourth-largest district – and one of its poorest – for nearly 12 years.

Hanson brought financial stability and change to the district in the heart of the economically struggling Central Valley. During his tenure, the percentage of students meeting admissions requirements to the state’s public universities doubled to 50 percent and the number of students taking Advanced Placement courses also doubled, while the student dropout rate fell by nearly half, to 11.7 percent.

Hired to rescue the district from near bankruptcy, he helped the district weather the economic recession without layoffs. He then used revenue from the Local Control Funding Formula, which provides additional funding to low-income districts like Fresno, to significantly expand preschool and career technical partnerships in high schools, and to provide arts and after-school opportunities in all of the schools.

“The foundation has been laid, and I urge you to stay the course,” he wrote in a letter to district staff. “Continue to move forward, each of you, in the same diligent manner that has garnered our district improved academic achievement and national recognition.”

Hanson’s announcement came two days before the school board may elect his biggest critic as board president. He had seen an erosion of his support on the seven-member school board during the past two years, marked by a contentious relationship with the teachers union and criticism of, and a federal inquiry into, his handling of school construction contracts.

He received a 4-2 favorable performance review in September (with one board member absent), and his contract extends through June 2021. But with the election last month of two new members backed by the Fresno Teachers Association, Hanson faced a possible loss of majority support for the first time. On Wednesday, the new board will meet and possibly elect as president Hanson’s sharpest critic, Brooke Ashjian, a paving contractor with whom he had sparred over the construction contracts.

In a lengthy interview preceding the public announcement of his resignation, Hanson acknowledged the difficulties and said that after a dozen years, he had run out of energy to deal with an adversarial board.

“I know what it’s going to take to rework this, and, candidly, I’m not running from this, but I do think me announcing now will make room or create some space or take some tension out of the room, such that they can maybe find a path forward that doesn’t make this about Mike and the board,” he said.

“I mean I’m tired. If anybody ever told you they did 12 years in an urban job, or 12 years in one of the nation’s poorest cities, and they’re not tired – they’re either lying to you, or they weren’t doing their job. I’m exhausted. It’s been a long, hard row to hoe.”

An EdSource survey this fall revealed that 17 superintendents in the state’s 30 largest districts had been in their jobs three years or less. Only seven had led their districts for five or more years, and only Hanson and Christopher Steinhauser, superintendent of Long Beach Unified since 2002, had served longer than a decade.

Steinhauser has been Hanson’s mentor and frequent collaborator on district partnerships, including the creation of the CORE districts, which received a unique U.S. Department of Education waiver in 2013 from the No Child Left Behind Act to create a new school accountability system. A precursor of California’s new school improvement system, which de-emphasizes the impact of standardized tests in evaluating schools, it includes measures of school climate and middle school students’ readiness for high school.

As the board president of CORE, Hanson has been an outspoken advocate for using data extensively to improve the achievement of underperforming students; 90 percent of Fresno’s students are low-income, and 78 percent are Hispanic and African-American. In extending the access of Advanced Placement courses, for example, the district tracked by subgroup students’ attendance, completion and performance on AP tests.

“Mike is and he will continue to be a champion for innovation, accountability and continuous improvement in our urban schools,” Rick Miller, executive director of the CORE Districts, stated Monday, following the resignation.

The emphasis on quantitative data helped narrow some disparities in achievement, but also led to criticism. Principals are “chasing metrics” in response to pressure from district administrators,  Jon Bath, a high school history teacher and chief contract negotiator for the Fresno Teachers Association, said last week. The majority of teachers at McLane High School signed a petition that said pressure to lower suspension rates had led to an increase in disruptive behavior and an unsafe environment, the Fresno Bee reported last week.

Hanson’s position on the Local Control Funding Formula has been another source of conflict with the teachers union. Hanson said that extra money for low-income students and English learners should be used to improve services and programs for those students. In exchange for a longer school day and professional development days, teachers in 40 elementary schools received an average annual salary increase of $10,000, Hanson said.

“I will draw a strong line there,” Hanson said in an interview. “I’m about making sure the poorest kids in the state get their due.”

The union has been pressing for higher across-the-board compensation and smaller class sizes.

Controversy over construction

Hanson’s handling of construction bids led to a successful lawsuit against the district and a federal grand jury subpoena for documents in August 2015, though there has been no action since then. It involved a contract using a process known as lease-leaseback, which allows the district to skip the competitive bidding process. The contractor fronts building costs, then recoups payments from the district through a lease over time. Other California courts have ruled the arrangement is permissible; the court of appeal in the Fresno case said the plaintiff had cause to pursue the lawsuit.

Hanson had awarded the contract to a construction company that had donated to the district’s bond campaign and to district causes that Hanson promoted, creating an appearance of a conflict of interest. The editorial page editor of the Fresno Bee sharply criticized the decision.

Despite the negative attention, voters last month passed a new construction bond, and Hanson called the controversy a “manufactured story” by opponents to make it appear illegal. “Lease-leaseback is a great way to get great work done, and to keep our costs down, and to keep work local, and keep our tax dollars local, and I would stand behind it till my dying day,” he said.

Marc Johnson, a retired superintendent of nearby Sanger Unified who admires the work Hanson has done, said that his district had used the same arrangement, and that “the perception of wrongdoing has masked evidence of real gains in Fresno” under Hanson.

“Mike has done a really good job of leading the district,” he said, and has been “passionate to make sure that equity and access” – seeing that the district’s underserved minorities get extra resources – “are at the forefront.”

“He can be seen as not warm and fuzzy because his priority is the kids, which drives him relentlessly,” Johnson said.

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  1. Jonathan Raymond 6 years ago6 years ago

    Leading a large urban school district, particularly in California during this past decade is incredibly challenging. Mike gave everything he had to the children of Fresno and California and it’s important we recognize all he has given and thank him (and his team) for all they have done. Proud to be his colleague.

  2. Ann 6 years ago6 years ago

    "Pressure to lower suspension rates had led to an increase in disruptive behavior and an unsafe environment, the Fresno Bee reported last week." This story garnered many, many more comments than the retirement of Hanson (though I think this is likely to prove a great loss for the district). The sentiment about so-called 'restorative justice' practices is widespread among those in the classroom. I believe it is damaging not only to students who want … Read More

    “Pressure to lower suspension rates had led to an increase in disruptive behavior and an unsafe environment, the Fresno Bee reported last week.” This story garnered many, many more comments than the retirement of Hanson (though I think this is likely to prove a great loss for the district). The sentiment about so-called ‘restorative justice’ practices is widespread among those in the classroom. I believe it is damaging not only to students who want to learn but to the disruptive, disrespectful students as well. Certainly the incentives attached to the policy lead administrators to simply avoid suspensions regardless of what the student has done. This is an ill- conceived policy for K-12 schools.