Francisco’s surprise

Chet Francisco

Chet Francisco

In his statements quoted in the press release sent out Monday (June 11) announcing his resignation as Chico Unified School District superintendent, Chet Francisco was vague about his reasons. He needed “a change of pace,” he said. He was not really sure “if this is a resignation or a retirement.” But he hoped to “find ways to be engaged” in the areas of “student learning, program development and leadership … in the future.” He sounded, in other words, like someone glad to be free but with no idea what he’d be doing next.

Francisco tendered his resignation during a special Saturday (June 9) Board of Trustees meeting scheduled for his annual review. “Most of us knew going in,” board President Rick Rees said, and the trustees never got to the review. Instead they used the meeting to talk about other personnel issues, particularly “where to go from here”—that is, who might best take on the job of interim superintendent.

The big question, of course, is why Francisco lasted only 21 months. Rees and another trustee, Andrea Lerner, both noted that the average tenure for California superintendents was just three years, “so this isn’t all that rare,” as Lerner put it. But the state average is not Chico’s average, and it’s hard to remember any superintendent who stayed for less than four years. Francisco’s immediate predecessor, Scott Brown, lasted five years, and before him Rob Barbot served for eight.

Noting that Francisco was older than most people thought, 59, and had been a superintendent for 18 years, Rees suggested that perhaps he was simply ready to retire. Maybe, but it was no secret that he was feeling frustrated that numerous distractions were keeping him and his staff from focusing on what really mattered to him: creating coherent, consistent curricula through all the grades and focusing on student learning.

Unfortunately, he inherited a district with problems. Under Brown, it had been through a turbulent period that included a painful, public controversy surrounding the demotion of the principal and vice-principal of Marsh Junior High School that had left deep wounds and unresolved issues and occasioned a highly critical report from the county grand jury.

Some of those issues emerged when the CN&R revealed, in a March 8 cover story, that Brown and other high-level district administrators—some of them still employed by the district—had engaged in abusive harassment in the effort to get rid of the principal, Jeff Sloan.

Francisco subsequently said he had no intention of looking into the matter. “He didn’t want to deal with it,” Lerner said. “It was a strategy not to go back and look. He was very clear that, any lapses on his watch, he would look at them, but he wasn’t going back.”

Francisco was driven “by his own issues—K-12 collaboration and individual learning every day. He wanted to move forward. Anything else took time and energy away from the school district,” Lerner said.

Unfortunately, that didn’t satisfy Sloan and others, this newspaper included, who didn’t want the matter swept under the rug. In recent weeks the district has been barraged by California Public Records Act requests for documents that it has struggled, and often failed, to fulfill.

Rees agreed that Francisco was frustrated, but he put it in more general terms. “I can tell you anybody would be frustrated by being a superintendent,” he said. The job is a juggling act of often-conflicting interest groups—teachers, unions, parents, legislators and Sacramento bureaucrats—against the backdrop of annual budget uncertainty that makes it almost impossible to plan ahead, he explained.

He credited Francisco with negotiating good contracts with district employees, but added that the CUSD faces tough decisions in the months ahead. At its regular meeting Wednesday evening, after the CN&R went to press, the board not only announced its choice of an interim superintendent, but also heard a full budget presentation.

“The word we get is that it’s not a rosy picture,” Rees said. “We’ll need to find ways to save money the next two years.”

The board will also have to find a new superintendent. It will implement a nationwide search right away.

Francisco didn’t return a phone message requesting further comment.