On his way out, Fresno Unified Superintendent Bob Nelson spills the tea | Opinion

After seven years as Fresno Unified superintendent, Bob Nelson is leaving for a tenure track position at Fresno State and spilling tea as he goes.

Leading up to his last day as a district employee (July 31), Nelson hasn’t been bashful about speaking out. The career educator known for his bald head and booming baritone used two recent exit interviews to sound off about the political realities of his job and divisions among board trustees.

Fresno Unified’s web of politics and education is more complex than in many places. Much of that is due to the district’s sheer size (California’s third-largest with nearly 70,000 students) as well as the diversity of the neighborhoods within its boundaries.

Another factor is the long history of dreadful academic performance – the elephant in the room that never goes away but is seldom discussed unless board members are arguing with each other or getting scolded during public comment.


Nelson entered into a politically fraught situation in 2017 after the board members forced out his predecessor (“I was the least openly detested [person] available,” he said) and nothing has changed as he steps away. Current trustees are so divided they can’t even agree on a succession plan.

Why is that? For Nelson, the switch to district elections for the seven board seats a decade ago fundamentally altered internal politics.

“Trustees started to be more representative of the community, and the traditional powers that be, who kind of control politics and Fresno, lost their ability to tightly control what was going on at the board level and it created a different level of conflict,” Nelson said in his interview with The Bee.

Nelson went on to disparage board members that use the job as a stepping stone to further their own ambitions rather than make education their sole focus.

“The truth is a lot of our trustees are getting elected to the school board with the intent of moving on to the city council or county government,” he said. “They see us as the AAA franchise of other political interests.”

Nelson made similar comments during his interview with the nonprofit news outlet Fresnoland: “The hard part in Fresno is that a lot of our trustees see themselves as a city council person or a county supervisor in embryo. This is the entry level political job on the path to become (US Rep.) Jim Costa.”


The only current Fresno council member that followed that specific path is Luis Chavez, a Fresno Unified trustee from 2012-16 who is now running for Fresno County supervisor. (Board member Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas, Chavez’s wife, currently represents the Roosevelt district.)

Annalisa Perea and Miguel Arias each served on the State Center Community College District governing board before becoming council members, while Nelson Esparza served on the Fresno County Office of Education board. (Esparza has filed papers to run for the State Board of Equalization in 2026.)

Nelson doesn’t tap dance

Nelson also didn’t tap dance around a delicate situation involving board president Susan Wittrup and her boyfriend Darius Assemi, one of Fresno’s largest and most influential developers who also owns and publishes an online news outlet, GV Wire.

When Wittrup was elected in 2022, the nearly $175,000 her campaign raised dwarfed not only her opponent but also the combined fields in other races. A sizable chunk of that money came from companies owned by Assemi and other developers including Richard Spencer.

Are Fresnans connecting the dots between deep-pocketed developers out to serve their own interests and the priorities of board members? Nelson doesn’t believe so.

“When, for example, a board president raises $175,000 in contributions for a trustee race – the vast majority of which are coming from either the Assemi family of companies or Harris Construction or developers – and then flip and turn and you have kind of a pseudo-media outlet in GV Wire reporting on the positive allocations that this person has generated,” he said to Fresnoland.

Nelson’s comments were so specific, and pointed, that reporter Julianna Moreno was compelled to seek comment from Wittrup. The board president staunchly defended her independence from Assemi and other developers and labeled Nelson’s comments as “smoke and mirrors.”

Isn’t it great when people in positions of authority tell us not to trust our own eyes?

Nelson’s exit interviews also delved into students’ continued poor test scores in English and math (short answer: the pandemic torpedoed any progress) as well as the district’s squabbles with the teacher’s union. But his most pointed comments were toward board members.

Too bad that sort of candidness is reserved for when a superintendent is on his way out. Makes for fun reading.