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Kern County, a ‘microcosm’ of California, sees major education leadership changes

Four educational leaders have left in the course of less than a year, while five new leaders have come to fill their previous roles.
Central Valley Higher Education Consortium
Four educational leaders have left in the course of less than a year, while five new leaders have come to fill their previous roles.

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — When Lynnette Zelezny became the president at California State University, Bakersfield, five years ago, she was the first woman to ever hold the job.

Throughout her tenure, one of her main priorities was to increase collaboration with Bakersfield College – a community college – by creating an outreach center specifically targeting transfer students.

In that time, Zelezny fostered a relationship with Sonya Christian, then chancellor of the Kern Community College District. The CSUB campus was among the first to use a new tool called the “Program Pathway Mapper” to help community college students get into a university. The tool was introduced by Christian with a focus on helping improve college access in Kern County.

In the last year, however, Zelezny and Christian have moved on from higher education in the county – and are among four top education positions that have seen a leadership change in less than a year.

The shift in leadership began last June, when the Kern County Superintendent of Schools – Mary Barlow – stepped down after serving in her role for six years.

Then, Christian left her role at the community colleges after two years to lead the state’s community college system.

In December, Zelezny retired from CSUB. And in March, the superintendent for the Kern High School District – Bryon Schaefer – followed suit.

The four leaders helped shape education and some hold decades of knowledge within the county, says Tom Burke, who is the former chancellor of the Kern Community College District.

Burke said he was surprised by the sudden shift in leadership, as it is “unique that significant educational entities in Kern County would undergo this much change in such a compressed time.”

Kern County a ‘microcosm of California’

Kern County is the third largest county geographically in California.

In the county of just under 1 million people, 77% of residents over the age of 25 have a high school diploma, and roughly 18% have obtained at least a bachelor’s degree.

Barlow, the former superintendent of schools in the county, says Kern County is like a “microcosm of California,” given its similarities to the state’s overall demographics.

According to the Education Data Partnership, 68% of Kern County students in kindergarten through 12th grade were Hispanic or Latino. White students make up 20% and Black students are 5% of the student population as of 2023. The numbers run fairly similar among college students in the county.

But despite mirroring some figures with the state, Barlow says Kern County still has distinct characteristics that keep education leaders busy – namely the vast region which has 47 different school districts.

“[No one] has as many [school districts] as Kern County,” Barlow said. “Some of our districts are very tiny. They have maybe 20 or fewer students and others are the largest districts in the state like Kern High School District, which has 42,000 high school students.”

Kern County also has high rates of students who qualify for free or reduced lunches, often a sign of social inequities in school districts.

Who is helping lead Kern County education?

All of the Kern County top educational positions left vacant by promotions or retirements have been filled.

Most of the newly appointed leaders already had experience working in Kern County. Vernon Harper, who is now interim president at CSU Bakersfield previously worked as provost and vice president for academic affairs at the university.

Harper told KVPR Zelezny helped mentor him over the years.

“The future of this institution really relies on the people of Kern County and our amazing students and families,” Harper said. “We're going to move forward with what I characterize as a full embrace of our community, our pipeline, our K-12 partners to make sure that every student in Kern County knows that CSUB is their institution and there's a place for them here.”

John Mendiburu, who is the newest Kern County superintendent of schools, also worked closely with his predecessor. He was seen as a strong candidate for the position because of his experience as associate superintendent. He also served as the superintendent of the Rosedale Union School District for a decade.

What’s even more phenomenal is the ability to in fairly short order, backfill these positions with new extremely talented individuals.
Tom Burke

“These are the largest educational institutes in the county of Kern and to see their top leadership change in less than a year is pretty phenomenal,” Burke said. “What’s even more phenomenal is the ability to in fairly short order, backfill these positions with new extremely talented individuals.”

Burke said the ability to fill positions with local administrators helped the district avoid broader interruptions.

“I don't think Kern's going to miss a beat to be quite honest,” Burke said.

And that’s likely an important factor to consider, given that a new survey from the Public Policy Institute of California shows most Central Valley adults believe their public school system is headed in the wrong direction.

Statewide, disapproval in public education was highest in the Central Valley and the Inland Empire – where 53% of people surveyed said they were dissatisfied with the system. Most Valley residents reported many students fell back academically during the pandemic.

And the Fresno Unified School District has recently faced criticism in its search for a new superintendent – who would lead the state’s third-largest school district. Earlier this month, the Board of Trustees voted to search outside of the district for a new leader even as they were close to interviewing an internal candidate for the job.

The decision led to outcry over an unfair selection process. Current Superintendent Bob Nelson will leave the position in July.

For new leaders, it’s a time to listen

Although three new leaders have experience with Kern County education, two are from out of state.

Steven Bloomberg worked at Southeast Arkansas College before taking on his role as Kern Community College District Chancellor. Jerry Filger, who a month ago became president of Bakersfield College — another campus that had also been missing a permanent leader — previously worked for College of the Mainland in Texas.

Filger told KVPR he is focusing on observing and learning as much as he can about Kern County before making any big decisions.

“Whatever decisions I make, I want to make [them] informed,” Filger said. “There's two schools of thought when you have executive leadership change. There's the school that says you come in and you change everything right away… and the other is you wait, you learn the lay of the land and then you approach it differently. I tend to be of the latter rather than the former and there's a reason for that.”

Filger said he wants to expand on Bakersfield College’s successes. He said the college has seen good enrollment and solid academic programs. He said if he wants to build on the trust among the community, making sudden changes wouldn’t be ideal.

“I want to get a chance to know [Bakersfield College people], work with them, give them a chance to know me and then figure out our way forward together,” Filger said. “I don't believe that we got to where we are by accident and so my charge of course is taking us to the next level.”

Rachel Livinal reports on higher education for KVPR through a partnership with the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative.