By MICHELLE MORGANTE
Central Valley Journalism Collaborative
Sept. 28, 2023
MERCED (CVJC) – At a packed meeting of the Merced City School District this week, teachers and parents pushed the board of trustees to acknowledge and release results of a community survey compiled as part of the search for a new superintendent.
Consultants from McPherson & Jacobson LLC, a search firm based in Omaha, Neb., gathered input during in-person meetings in Merced and through online surveys in August. Before the firm could officially present its findings, however, the trustees called a special meeting on Friday, Sept. 22 and voted 3-2 to terminate the contract.
The board has not explained why it fired the firm. Brooks said during the board’s meeting Tuesday night that it did so for “three main reasons.” He said the board would release a letter this week to explain the decision.
As of Thursday afternoon, the letter had not been released. District Communications Director Dominique Zuniga did not immediately respond to an email and call asking about the document’s status.
“People will say that the board doesn’t want the information to come out because we are not transparent. This is not true,” Brooks said at the meeting. “The board is open to hearing all voices in the community.”
Four superintendents since 2020
Speakers who addressed the board Tuesday night complained the decision will set back the work of finding a new superintendent to lead the district, which has had four leaders since 2020.
The district currently is led by acting Superintendent Brian Meisenheimer. He replaced Superintendent Diana Jimenez, whom the board fired in April, without publicly giving a reason, just 10 months after she started. Jimenez followed an interim chief who replaced another leader, Al Rogers, who left after just one year amid allegations of sexual harassment.
The board in June hired McPherson & Jacobson to find qualified candidates for the role, agreeing to a contract worth up to $24,880.
Diane Pust, president of the Merced City Teachers Association, defended the search firm, saying its work to gather community input was done in a professional manner.
“Firing McPherson & Jacobson because you don’t want to be accountable for the results, cost our school four months, $25,000 and our trust,” Pust said during public comments Tuesday night. “It is really unfortunate that the board rejected this report because the summary pages hold many truths.”
The churn of turnover at the top has created an unsettled atmosphere, she said.
“Teachers are stressed and in survival mode,” Pust said. “Do you understand what chaos and the adult problems plaguing our district in the past few years have done to our students? Our job is to help them succeed, not survive the chaos created by district management.”
Her comments were met with applause from the dozens of teachers and community members in the audience.
Ryan Paskin, a Merced resident with two children in the district, called on the board to recognize the issues raised in the survey. And, if the board acted to appoint Meisenheimer permanently to the role, he warned, the community would move to recall the trustees and file a complaint with the grand jury.
“Stop sacrificing our kids for your own political game,” Paskin said. “Our community will not stand for this behavior.”
Erin Hamm, president of the Merced Union High School District, pressed the trustees to “do the right thing for the children of this community.” She suggested several local options exist to provide temporary leadership, such as leaning on experienced administrators in the area or on the Merced County Office of Education.
“You’ve hired and fired and hired and fired – and affairs and misconduct and unprofessional behavior,” she said. “That’s all common knowledge and how the district is perceived today – a real soap opera.”
Hamm’s remark appeared to reference several comments in the survey that alleged inappropriate relationships among personnel at the district office.
Schools in the district suffer from high absenteeism and suspension rates, and low performance levels in math and English Language Arts, she said, pointing to the district’s dashboard.
“The children of this community deserve better,” she said.
What’s in the report?
MCSD is Merced County’s largest school district with more than 11,500 students at 14 elementary schools and four middle schools. It employs more than 1,400 teachers and staff.
McPherson & Jacobson’s 77-page Stakeholder Input Report includes community responses about Merced’s positive characteristics as well as desired attributes of the next superintendent. It also includes criticism of the board and of district leaders, and it describes a “toxic” environment where employees fear retaliation for speaking up.
The report summarizes answers to four questions:
- Tell us what is good about your community.
- Tell us what is good about the district and the schools.
- What are the issues a new superintendent should know about when coming to this
- What are the characteristics, attributes, and skills one should have to be successful in this position?
A total of 249 responses were received, including 172 responses sent in online, according to the report’s executive summary.
Recurring themes found in the responses include positives, such as Merced’s small-town feel, its community spirit and proximity to natural beauty as well as the Bay Area. The district also has loyal, hard-working staff.
But respondents also described a district with a turbulent past, with leaders who lack a “moral compass” and whose poor communication and leadership have hurt morale. They describe a board that is a “major obstacle,” with members who micromanage the district’s day-to-day operations.
The next superintendent, many said, must be a competent and courageous leader with “integrity” and the know-how to hold people accountable and to manage the board.
Whoever is chosen, the report notes, should have “no fear of the Board.”
Whether the board officially received the document has not been made clear. At the close of the special board meeting when it voted to fire McPherson & Jacobson, Brooks said: “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.”
CVJC reached out to McPherson & Jacobson to request interviews with consultants who led the survey, Daniel Moirao and Marilyn Shepherd. A regional representative for the firm, Steve Lowder, instead offered a statement:
“McPherson & Jacobson LLC is one of the top three recruiting firms in the country. Over the years, we have run hundreds of successful searches. We would like to thank the Merced City School District for the opportunity to serve the district, the community, the staff and the students.”
The report compiled by the firm was sent to Merced County Office of Education Superintendent Steve Tietjien on Sept. 13, according to MCOE. The office provided a copy of the report to the CVJC upon request Tuesday.
Pust received a copy of the report after requesting it from MCOE on Sept. 13, according to an email message reviewed by CVJC.
“It was stated that in mid-September of 2023 a report would be presented in open session summarizing the results of over 20 community and district forums,” Pust wrote. “It is my
understanding that the MCSD Board of Education is choosing not to make this report public. Being that McPherson & Jacobson LLC was hired and paid for with public funds, it is the right of all citizens to have access to this report.”
Cover page and first page of executive summary of the McPherson & Jacobson report.
MCSD Board’s Response
While the board has not acknowledged receiving the report, several of the trustees referred to it during Tuesday night’s meeting.
“Just because we, as a board, decided as a board not to publish information doesn’t mean that we are not going to look at it and address the issues that have arisen,” Trustee Birdi Olivarez-Kidwell said. She called on anyone wishing to raise complaints or speak with the trustees to do so through the appropriate processes.
During a discussion about board protocols, Olivarez-Kidwell noted that the confidentiality of closed sessions must be adhered to by all trustees. If a grand jury investigation finds such confidentiality is violated, penalties can include fines of up to $1,000 and up to five days in jail, she said. “The penalties are stiff,” she said. “Confidentiality of closed session is a legal requirement.”
Trustee Jessee Espinosa said it was “hard” for board members to be criticized, but that “you guys don’t have all the information.” The board, he said, would aim to be more transparent.
He then said he wished to formally request a “thorough internal as well as independent external investigation into the unauthorized release of the confidential repository,” apparently referring to the survey report.
The investigation, he said, should “identify any breaches of protocol or law” and should include an “audit of communication channels and correspondence … to trace the flow of information and any unauthorized disclosures or breaches of confidentiality.”
Trustee Beatrice McCutchen asked that any investigation include examination of the allegations of improproper behavior within the district that were raised in the survey.
McCutchen and Trustee Priya Lakireddy were the two trustees to vote against firing McPherson & Jacobson. Brooks, Olivarez-Kidwell and Espinosa voted for the termination.
Earlier in the evening, McCutchen said bullying, harassment and intimidation were creating “a hostile environment for myself and another trustee.”
“We need help,” she said. She called on the community “to stand up and speak for a better tomorrow.”
McCutchen received a standing ovation when she identified herself as a “daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother, a grandmother and a cancer survivor.” As she spoke, she stood and removed a pink hat to reveal her bare head.
“As a board member, I am your voice, and my voice will not be silenced.”
Michelle Morgante is the editor-in-chief for the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative, a nonprofit newsroom based in Merced. Sign up for CVJC’s free Substack list here and follow CVJC on Facebook.
This story was published in partnership with the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative, a nonprofit and nonpartisan community newsroom. To get regular coverage from the CVJC, sign up for CVJC’s free Substack list here and follow CVJC on Facebook.
Young Gifted and Black
CVV News l May 13, 2023
Modesto/Stanislaus NAACP welcome you to their 28th Annual Black Graduates Recognition Ceremony. We will be celebrating generations of YOUNG, GIFTED & Black 8th, 12th and college graduates Saturday, May 20, 2023, at Modesto High School Auditorium: 18 H Street from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Keynote speaker is City Council member, Jeremiah Williams with special appearance by Brandon Leake, Winner of America’s Got Talent.
An overview video of the historic Modesto City School Black College Tour prepared by a student. Each graduate will receive a certificate of recognition. High school and college graduates will receive a Kente Cloth Stole in addition to a certificate.
Sponsors are: Project Uplift, The Men’s Group, Women’s Auxiliary, Parents Leading Chane, Modesto High School BSU, Modesto Peace Life Center.
There will be a limited amount of $500 scholarships awarded to assist college bound students with college assistance. Scholarship applications can also be completed on line at: naacpmodestostanislaus.org.
For questions contact (209) 422-9616 or (209) 896-9196; email email@example.com.
2023 Freedom Fund & Community Service Awards Banquet
CVV News l January 2023
The Modesto/Stanislaus will hold its 2023 Freedom Fund & Community Service Awards Banquet, Saturday, March 11, 2023 at 6:00 p.m. The Banquet location is Modesto Centre Plaza, 1000 L Street, Modesto, CA The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) strives to ensure civil rights for all individuals. For over 113 years, the NAACP has been a leading voice in advocating for equity, diversity, and civil rights. The organization ensures that everyone has the same opportunities and is treated fairly, regardless of race or background. Civil rights for one is civil rights for all—the NAACP and the Modesto/Stanislaus Branch are committed to fighting for the rights of everyone.
Through this event, and with the support from our local community and friends, we hope to raise funds to continue our essential work. Your support also provides the opportunity to demonstrate your partnership in our efforts to promote equality, provide equal accessibility and eliminate discrimination in our local community.
To Become an Event or Table Sponsor, call (209) 896-9196 – JOIN TODAY at WWW.NAACPMODESTOSTANISLAUS. ORG/JOIN