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Critical report on Merced City Schools details issues next superintendent might face

The administrative offices of the Merced City School District are shown in Merced, Calif.
Central Valley Journalism Collaborative
The administrative offices of the Merced City School District are shown in Merced, Calif.

The next leader of Merced County’s largest school district should have a strong moral compass while also holding board members and staff accountable.

That’s one of many takeaways identified in a previously unreleased report compiled last year by a search firm hired – and later fired – by the Merced City School District’s governing board.

The Merced FOCUS obtained a copy of the document even though the district never publicly released it.

Merced City Schools trustees last week said they selected a final candidate in their year-long search for a permanent superintendent. The board selected Julianna Stocking, associate superintendent of educational services at Tracy Unified, and will vote on an employment contract at an upcoming meeting.

If hired, Stocking will be the district’s fifth leader since 2020.

Stocking’s new role won’t be easy, if one takes into account the unreleased report compiled by the Omaha, Nebraska-based search firm McPherson & Jacobson.

The board hired McPherson & Jacobson in June 2023. The firm represents the California School Board Association to assist in nationwide searches for superintendents. McPherson & Jacobson has placed over 900 superintendents in districts across the country since 1991, according to the firm’s website.

Thereport compiled feedbackcollected both in person and online about the qualities surveyees would like to see in a superintendent. The report also collected anonymous statements about some of the positive and negative attributes of the district that an incoming superintendent would need to know.

Stakeholder report: The good and bad about MCSD

Even before McPherson & Jacobson was involved, Merced City School District was no stranger to controversy. The survey went live after Merced City Schools endured a revolving door of leadership in a few short years.

Merced City School District has been without a stable leader since longtime Superintendent RoseMary Parga Duran retired in December 2019.

Al Rogers, Parga Duran’s successor, resigned in 2021 amid sexual harassment allegations. A staffer at the district in a lawsuitaccused him of demeaning comments, unwanted touching and unwanted sexual advances. He denied the allegations.

Since then, the district has operated under a new leader each year. The most recent change in leadership occurred in April 2023 when the board fired Superintendent Diana Jimenez without cause after she was in the position for under a year.

As part of its five-phase process, McPherson & Jacobson assembled a stakeholder report for the district and for the future superintendent to reference.

Over the course of two days, McPherson & Jacobson consultants Daniel Moirao and Marilyn Shepherd facilitated small group meetings with 77 people, including administrators, principals, teachers, classified staff and other community members.

The consultants also circulated an online survey. Among the multiple questions, the survey asked:

1). What are the issues a new superintendent should know about when coming to this position?

2). What are the characteristics, attributes, and skills one should have to be successful in this position?

The consultants received nearly 250 responses, which were organized into themes with short summaries. They also included unedited raw data – or responses – collected in the survey, redacting only names or profanity.

Multiple comments included in the raw data included allegations of an extramarital affair between a district official and a subordinate.

Other comments accused district officials of surveilling, bullying and retaliating against staff. They criticized district leaders for lacking integrity and padding district office jobs with their friends.

“The environment is toxic where leadership tends to be petty and retribution seems to be used as a weapon for control,” one comment said.

Many comments also criticized board members, saying they should be recalled, don’t understand their role and have hindered teachers.

“In these past few years, our school board has not seemed to understand their role. In many ways, it has felt like it has hindered our forward motion and made many teachers and community members question why they are serving,” another comment said.

The survey also asked about the district’s positive attributes. Responses pointed to Merced’s central location in California, being a college town, the community’s diversity and the district’s many dedicated veteran teachers and staff.

“The community of Merced has a great group of community members that are friendly and willing to help out other community members,” one response read.

“People in Merced are constantly striving to make Merced a better place for everyone. Merced is an up and coming town that has a hometown feel. It’s centrally located and there are tons of other towns/cities/adventures within close proximity.”

Board president responds to report

Allen Brooks, Merced City School District board president, told The Merced FOCUS he hadn’t read the McPherson & Jacobson report and has no desire to do so.

However, Brooks said the district previously addressed the allegations contained within it, and there was no need for any new investigation.

He pointed out there’s no way to know who participated in the anonymous online survey, or whether one person submitted multiple responses.

“For the record, these issues that were raised, the issues that we’ve heard, they were addressed,” Brooks said. “Once again, I haven’t seen that report. I don’t know the issues that were raised in the report, but I know the issues that the search firm verbally told us. And those things were definitely taken care of.”

Back in September, Brooks penned a letter explaining the board’s decision to part ways with McPherson & Jacobson. But firing the firm, coupled with the failure to publicly release the report, sparked community outrage.

Since Parga Duran retired, the board also has seen turnover, with new board members being elected. The board has shown internal division with multiple split votes – including the vote to fire McPherson & Jacobson – and recently hired a consultant to conduct governance training sessions.

“This is the most important thing as a board that we will do,” Brooks said about finding the next superintendent. “We know people are watching us, and sometimes it’s stressful, but we’re going to get it right this time.”

Emails obtained show insight into report

After public controversy erupted when the MCSD board fired McPherson & Jacobson, concerned citizen Japjeet Singh Uppal filed a public records request to gain insight into the events surrounding the firm’s report.

The records provide additional detail and clarity about the relationship between the board and consultants. The Merced FOCUS verified the authenticity of the records by making the same public records request to Merced City School District.

Emails and other documents show the consultants were concerned about how the public would respond to the report.

In an email to the board on Sept. 8, consultants Moirao and Shepherd requested to meet with the board during its closed session of the Sept. 12 board meeting to discuss “what are potentially considered liable issues for the Board and District as a whole.”

The consultants requested the district’s legal counsel also be present and that no district staff be present, according to the email obtained by The Merced FOCUS.

The consultants recommended the board delay releasing the report to allow the board to plan how it would address “identified issues” in the responses gathered by the consultants.

At first, board president Brooks approved delaying the report, consultant Moirao wrote in the email.

But then Brooks changed his position and didn’t want to delay the report. Instead, he wanted to move forward with publicly releasing it at the Sept. 13 meeting, according to Moirao.

The consultants were prepared to honor that request, he wrote. But releasing the report at the Sept. 13 special meeting and discussing it in closed session wouldn’t give the board time to address the issues in the report before releasing it publicly.

Under California’s Brown Act, the agenda for a special meeting must be published 24 hours prior. That means the report would’ve been publicly available before the board had time to review it.

“Our concern is the content of the report that will likely have a significant fiscal, political and ultimately a student/community impact on the MCSD (sic),” Moirao wrote. “I must share that this report is one of the most difficult that Dr. Shepherd and myself have assembled and we are deeply concerned about the impacts on all the stakeholders of MCSD.”

“While we will abide by the direction of President Brooks, we continue believe (sic) that this decision is not in the best interest of MCSD, the students, the community and quite frankly the success of attracting a strong viable Superintendent candidate for the future of the District you are leading,” Moirao wrote.

The Merced FOCUS obtained email communications that indicate Shepherd emailed on Sept. 12 a copy of the final report to the board’s executive assistant at the time, Donna Polk, asking her to print copies for the evening board meeting. In the emails the district provided to The Merced FOCUS, the attachment to her email is redacted.

Ultimately, the district never publicly released the report. The board never publicly made clear whether it received or reviewed the report. Brooks told The Merced FOCUS he’s never seen the report, saying it’s not a district document.

“I don’t desire to receive the report because we’ve moved on from them,” Brooks said, referring to McPherson & Jacobson.

Board didn’t want to accept critical report, consultant says

Moirao, who wrote the report with Shepherd, told The Merced FOCUS in a phone interview it was the consultants’ intent to give MCSD’s board an opportunity to think about the survey response before a public meeting.

“And that’s when things went south,” Moirao said. “I don’t know why, but they did not want to accept that report at all. And these were direct quotes, comments, from their community and the feeling that the community had,” he said.

“So we were really thinking we were helping them because there were some things in that report that somebody could challenge in a legal way.”

On Sept. 14, Moirao sent a text message to MCSD Trustee Priya Lakireddy saying he removed himself from the superintendent search, records show.

“What is happening in Merced is a crime against students,” Moirao told Lakireddy in the text. “I cannot allow that.”

Still, emails show some school leaders and others connected to the district certainly were interested in the report.

Lakireddy and Diane Pust, Merced City Teachers Association president, on Sept. 14 requested copies of the report from Merced County Office of Education Superintendent of Schools Steve Tietjen, emails show. MCOE operates as a support organization for the county’s 20 school districts, including Merced City Schools.

Pust also emailed Brooks on Sept. 17 requesting a copy of the report, records show.

“…I am formally asking you when the Stakeholder Input report will be released to the public,” she wrote. “This is a report that was paid for with public funds, and therefore should be made available to ensure all voices are represented and that the process is transparent.”

In a Sept. 20 email to Tietjen, acting Merced City Schools superintendent Brian Meisenheimer recounted a conversation they shared the day before.

In the email, Meisenheimer alleged Tietjen told him Shepherd, one of the consultants, sent him the stakeholder report. Meisenheimer then requested copies of Lakireddy’s and Pust’s emails requesting the report.

At a special meeting on Sept. 22, the board voted 3-2 to terminate the contract with McPherson & Jacobson. Trustees Birdi Olivarez-Kidwell, Jessee Espinosa and Board President Brooks formed the majority vote. Trustees Lakireddy and Beatrice McCutchen voted no.

At the close of the Sept. 22 meeting when the board 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.”

Board members accuse consultants of breaching trust

In a letter dated Sept. 29, Board President Brooks told Norman Ridder, CEO and owner of McPherson & Jacobson, that the board terminated the contract for three reasons: breach of contract, breach of confidentiality and going against the board’s closed-session directive.

The letter also was shared publicly through the district’s communication channels.

Brooks wrote to Ridder, saying the board had not seen or reviewed the draft report but still took the consultants’ concerns seriously.

However, Brooks wrote, the board is not in the practice of releasing confidential personnel information, especially without proper investigation into allegations, as required by district policy and state law.

The board planned to address concerns that weren’t related to the scope of the superintendent search separately and appropriately, Brooks wrote, citing employee privacy.

The board expected the consultants to provide high-level summaries in the stakeholder report, such as ones provided in previous superintendent searches, Brooks said in his letter. Rather than follow the board’s direction, the consultants decided the draft report, which included raw survey data, constituted a public record.

Despite the assertion by Brooks that the board expected “high-level” summaries, the consultants during a June special board meeting outlined the timeline and a detailed explanation of the process of the search, including publishing the raw data of the survey.

Brooks wrote that decision was a legal determination outside of the consultants’ authority. Furthermore, he alleged the consultants took the “unprecedented and unilateral” action of releasing the report to an outside agency without consulting with or notifying the board.

Plus, the board never saw the report, Brooks wrote, referring to it as a “draft report,” in quotations, throughout the letter. The district only learned of the action because it was notified by the outside agency, he said.

After repeated requests, the consulting firm refused to say to whom or when the report was shared, Brooks wrote.

The board did not come to the decision to terminate the contract lightly, Brooks told Ridder in his letter. “…We believe the selection of the Superintendent is one of the Board’s most important jobs, and we believed McPherson and Jacobson could assist us with that process,” Brooks wrote. “We are now in a position where the search has been delayed, and our community is awash in misinformation.”

Brooks told Ridder in the letter, the board believed it could take legal action against his firm McPherson & Jacobson, but instead, it was focused on finding the district’s next superintendent.

“Instead, I write on behalf of the Board to tell you of our perception that the actions of your consultants constituted a breach of trust, sowed discord, and created a major distraction in our community,” Brooks wrote. “It is our hope that you take our experience to heart when conducting future searches for other districts so they may avoid a similar experience.”

Search firm pushes transparency

Ridder, who is McPherson & Jacobson’s owner, responded in a letter on Oct. 3, thanking Brooks for his explanation and clarifying the work of the consultants.

Ridder wrote that his firm makes efforts to protect the transparency of their consultants’ work and assures customers they’ll be provided raw survey input with the expectation it will be shared with stakeholders.

“From our years of experience supporting searches for all executive positions in a school system, transparency assures the district’s stakeholders that they are included in the selection of their superintendent,” Ridder said in his letter.

“Any editing of the data creates doubt and may even cause the school board and selected superintendent to struggle with the community they serve.”

The two McPherson & Jacobson consultants were clear in their June presentation to the board the raw stakeholder data would be included in the report with only profanity and names redacted, he wrote. The report was ready for delivery, posting and distribution by Sept. 10, 2023, he noted.

“As I reviewed your letter and the process you followed in your search, I found a major violation of any effort for transparency when you state you want to edit the document,” Ridder wrote to Brooks. “The McPherson & Jacobson process has been successful in many districts who are transparent and seek to find the best candidate for their position.”

Ridder declined to provide additional comment to The Merced FOCUS, writing via email that he supported Moirao’s sentiments about the firm’s commitment to transparency.

In his interview with The Merced FOCUS, Moirao said he hopes the district’s mission returns to students.

“I truly hope they hire somebody, a superintendent that can get them focused on students,” he said. “Their students are in real need, and that’s where the focus needs to go.”