By BRITTANY MILLER
& JONATHAN WHITAKER
The search for the next superintendent of the Merced City School District (MCSD) — the largest K-8 education system in the region — has taken a dive into deep controversy with scathing criticisms voiced by teachers and residents, combined with intrigue about an eyebrow-raising survey that was disseminated, and a leadership board that appears sourly divided.
Leaders were pummeled with searing comments at Tuesday night’s regular meeting of the MCSD Board of Trustees.
“You’ve hired and fired, and hired and fired … and affairs, and misconduct, and unprofessional behavior,” rattled off Erin Hamm, herself a trustee for the local high school district. “That is all common knowledge in how the district is perceived today — a real life soap opera. And what’s sadly very apparent to the community is that children are not the focus. If you don’t see this, you have blinders on.”
Ryan Paskin, a parent in the district, said: “The behavior of this board demands a strong community response.”
Real estate agent Necola Adams described the board as “a hot mess.”
It’s been five months since the MCSD Board of Trustees fired the last superintendent, Diana Jimenez, in her first year on the job. She was the third person since 2020 to hold the post. This includes Superintendent Al Rogers, who resigned after a single year in the wake of sexual harassment claims that were made against him.
In June, the board selected an executive recruitment firm McPherson & Jacobson “to guide the process of identifying the best superintendent candidate.”
“I thought we were on the right track,” said Diane Pust, president of the Merced Teachers Association. “A clear timeline was created and stakeholders input was sought. Personally, I took part in two of the stakeholders meetings … These forums were presented in a very professional manner. Participants were informed that the survey results would go to the board in mid-September, and they would be shared publicly, so that any potential candidate would know what we are looking for in our next superintendent.”
A special meeting of the MCSD Board was scheduled for Sept. 13, but it was cancelled. Meanwhile, word started to spread in certain education circles of the city that a 77-page report existed featuring the survey responses — and many were not very flattering with regard to the board and the MCSD executive administration.
The Times later received a copy of what appears to be the same report from a Merced resident who desired to remain anonymous but was concerned that “taxpayers, paying for things the Board is doing, should be aware of stakeholder opinions about the organization the Board is directing.”
On Sept. 22, another special meeting was held. After more than three hours in closed session, the board reappeared with a short-but-surprising statement by Board President Allen Brooks, who announced the termination of the search firm McPherson and Jacobson. It was a split 3-2 vote, with trustees Priya Lakireddy and Beatrice McCutchen voting NO.
Brooks added, “You may have heard about a potential report that was supposed to be created by the consultants. The board has not received any such report. As part of their contract, the consultants were responsible for meeting with the community and preparing summaries of the input received about the desirable characteristics of the next superintendent …. The board has not received the information requested, and continues to wait for a high-level summary of community input.”
Brooks on Tuesday would go on to reveal that the “document” (“Not a report,” he said.) was released by a third party “not in our district,” and that it was full of “raw opinions.”
A representative of McPherson and Jacobson declined to comment when the Times contacted the firm with a question about the report and its release. Acting MCSD Superintendent Brian Meisenheimer, who has been serving in the role since the dismissal of Jimenez, told the Times on Monday that the report was not sent to him, and he had not seen it.
Brooks has also promised the board will continue the search for a new superintendent, and provide periodic updates to the community. For the record, the County Times has only received one update on the superintendent search during the past five months, and that was the announcement in June of the hiring of the search firm.
On Tuesday night, after an initial closed session of the meeting, board leaders commented on the controversy.
President Brooks announced that a draft letter was in the works to outline the facts that led up to the board’s decision regarding a request for a “high-level summary” from McPherson & Jacobson, and that letter would be made public “shortly.” He also said there were three main reasons for the firing of the search firm, but didn’t disclose them.
Trustee Birdi Olivarez-Kidwell assured the audience that “facts, not rumor or sensationalistic gossip,” would be forthcoming. “I think our decisions will become more clear and more transparent. … Every decision I make is for our students, our staff, and our teachers, and I trust that once the information comes forward, every one of you … will understand and would choose to do the same.”
In contrast, Trustee Lakireddy issued a strong signal that the Board of Trustees is sharply, and perhaps, uncomfortably divided.
“Last Friday, I attended a special board meeting that happened. The line of questioning I was subjected to was unprofessional. It was hostile … We are in a crisis. We have a leadership crisis. We have a board that is in utter chaos.”
Several of the public speakers on Tuesday night suggested that the board, or certain members, did not want to be transparent about the findings of the search firm for obvious reasons.
“Over 200 parents and community members spoke and shared their visions and concerns … and you do not want to be accountable for the results to the people who elected you,” said Pust, the union rep. “That is disrespectful. Firing McPherson and Jacobson because you don’t want to be accountable for the results cost our schools four months, $25,000, and our trust. It is really unfortunate that this board rejected this report because the summary pages hold many truths.”
Said speaker Michelle Delgado, “A 77-page document has made it into the homes of this community and how is it that some board members expect us to believe that they never saw it.
… Is it because it was damaging to their egos and reflective of how they are allowing this district to be ran?”
In the later part of Tuesday night’s meeting, board members discussed reviews of their decision protocols, closed session proceedings, and a possible investigation of recent events regarding the superintendent search.
According to the “stakeholders input” report obtained by the Times, the document contained the results of a survey that was presented to members of the Merced City School District community, which included face-to-face and virtual interviews as well as an online survey.
They received 249 total responses. The survey consisted of four questions designed to aid the district in their search for a new superintendent. The results, however, produced a questionable image of the district.
Three of the four questions gauged the general atmosphere of the community and school district, as well as the skills sought in a future superintendent.
“What are the issues that the new Superintendent should know about when coming into the new position?” was the third question of the survey, which resulted in responses indicating a range of frustrations.
The report organized these responses by themes, which included “unsettled history,””fear of retaliation,””the board needs to understand its role,””weak moral compass,””lack of communication,” and “low morale.”
The report included the raw unedited responses provided as answers to the survey. There were responses addressing academic performance, attendance, and lack of resources. A large portion of the responses, however, directly addressed issues with leadership, and specifically the Board of Education.
- Toxic environment within the organization
- Instability at the leadership level and trickle-down impact on students
- Board needs to be held to standards and conduct themselves professionally
- Fear of speaking out against what is wrong and unlawful
- Stop the bullying of employees
- Inappropriate affairs between administrators making things uncomfortable
- Plotting against employees
- Be aware of security cameras being used to surveil people and recording devices being used
- Board involvement in operational issues
- The issues of the Board are real
- Board President leadership concerns
- Deep ingrained suspicion
- Turbulent past
- Lack of transparency
- Power dynamic between the Superintendent and Board
- Challenge of dealing with the Board
- Parents feel that the Board is making decisions without any communication and opportunity for parent input
- Lack of communication and drama created by personal behavior
- More competency needed in leadership
- Ethical concerns