In August 2013, I had the honor of being selected as the superintendent of Madera Unified, a district where I had spent 24 years as a teacher and an administrator. My selection was greeted with a standing ovation from community members in the boardroom.
Last Wednesday evening, less than four years later, I was unceremoniously escorted out of that same boardroom, removed by the School Board “without cause.” It was, to say the least, an ignominious and incongruous ending to what had been a stellar 35-year career in education. From what I can tell, the reaction from the community was confusion and shock. This decision leaves many unanswered questions.
When Superintendent Dr. Julie O’Kane retired in 2006, I accepted a position as the superintendent of a small school district in Fresno County. Four years later, I was recruited as an associate superintendent in Fresno Unified, the fourth-largest district in the State, and then served one year as an administrator at the Fresno County Office of Education. I worked hard to prepare myself for an opportunity to return to Madera Unified as superintendent, an opportunity that presented itself when former Superintendent Gustavo Balderas resigned after only 18 months.
But Madera Unified had changed dramatically in the seven years that I had been away. During this time, there had been six superintendents or interim superintendents in the district. Several members of the Board of Trustees had been under investigation for improper conduct during the previous superintendent search, resulting in the chosen candidate — a well-respected, successful alumnus of Madera High School — withdrawing his candidacy. Numerous lawsuits involving high-level administrators were ongoing. Teachers had been at impasse for several months and were threatening to strike.
The challenges were substantial. Admittedly, I had reservations about returning, but my reputation in the Madera community had good currency. Teachers put down their picket signs and signed a contract within three weeks of my arrival. The two subsequent contracts signed by teachers each broke the State record for the highest approval of any contract in the history of the California Teachers Association. I recruited the best talent I could find, a mixture of locals and administrators from around the state, and began the work of repairing trust in the district. In November 2014, in spite of the opposition of three current board members, two of whom came in during this same election, the community passed Measure G, a $70 million bond to build a much-needed high school and alleviate the crippling overcrowding in our schools. We now have two state-of-the-art schools in construction, with a third high-tech middle school in preliminary planning stages.
At the board’s directive, staff created a 12-year facilities master plan that details the construction of seven new schools, a new adult ed building, and a new district office to replace the crumbling 60-year old building that is currently the district’s headquarters. The plan also details the revenue sources for these projects, avoiding any long-term debt financing that has so plagued the District in previous building projects.
I am most proud of our student achievement. Graduation rates soared to record highs among all students, as well as among all measured subgroups, including English learners and migrant students, during my four years as Superintendent. Record numbers of students are attending college, and our four-year university eligibility rates are at historic highs. Our emphasis on early literacy has resulted in dramatically higher reading fluency among elementary students. At the same time, student expulsions have plummeted to their lowest level since records have been kept in Madera Unified. Our career technical education, robotics, and FFA programs are renowned throughout the State. Our athletic teams are in resurgence, with seven section championships in the last three years. We have expanded the visual and performing arts, and have the district’s first-ever string ensemble program. We recently became the first district to receive the state’s highest recognition for our parent engagement efforts, coordinated through our exemplary parent resource centers, which were established when I returned to Madera Unified.
The school board has the right to release a superintendent “without cause”, and buy out the contract. But the Madera community also has the right to voice their concerns as to why the board chose to take such drastic action in light of the overwhelming evidence that the district has been improving during the last four years. Is this move in the best interests of the children? I trust the Madera community will ask the right questions of their elected leaders.
— Edward C. Gonzalez,
Former superintendent of Madera Unified School District