WATSONVILLE—The Pajaro Valley Unified School District Board of Trustees late Wednesday agreed to not pay an attorney fee racked up by trustee Georgia Acosta during a meeting on Jan. 29.
In making the decision, the board agreed that Acosta, who was then board president, went beyond her authority when she asked Chico-based attorney Matthew Paul Juhl-Darlington of Dannis Woliver Kelley law firm to sit in on a Jan. 29 meeting, without board approval.
During that meeting, the trustees were scheduled to appoint an interim superintendent after the board voted 4-3 to fire Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez.
It is not clear what will now happen with the bill, which came to $16,038. Among the line items was a $500 charge for “preparations for board meeting strategy and communications with board president and drafting of agenda for meeting.”
Rodriguez said that the law firm could demand payment from the district, ask Acosta to pay the bill or write it off.
Acosta did not attend the meeting, nor was she present during a special meeting on March 3, when the trustees discussed governance and open meeting regulations.
Trustee Jennifer Schacher called for that special meeting after the controversy that erupted when Acosta led efforts to abruptly fire Rodriguez.
Acosta has yet to explain the reasons for the decision, and she has declined multiple requests for comment.
The board later reversed the decision and removed Acosta as president.
“We’ve heard from the community a demand for increased accountability,” board President Jennifer Holm said. “There is a question about whether or not the district is responsible for this bill.”
Holm said that bringing in Juhl-Darlington—Lou Lozano of the firm Lozano Smith is the district’s normal counsel—was a decision that should have fallen to the entire board.
“It is not at the discretion of individual board members,” she said.
PVUSD spokeswoman Alicia Jimenez read more than a dozen comments, most of them criticizing Acosta for racking up the expense.
Teacher Laura Zucker called the expense “pocket change” for a district with a $242 million budget. She added that the district has more important issues to deal with.
But others were critical of Acosta and her actions.
Watsonville High School teacher Ryan Jones said that he has to get approval a month in advance when he makes purchases as small as a box of pencils, and said he recently paid for a work laptop without reimbursement. He says he also spends $200 per month for groceries to keep in his classroom for his students.
“I pay for that out of my own pocket, but Georgia, you go and rack up $16,000 in debt,” he said. “You have completely lost all the respect of a trustee or board member. Georgia, you need to step down, that’s your only option. You have done enough damage to this community.”
Trustee Maria Orozco, who made the motion not to pay the bill, said that the district should not authorize the type of behavior Acosta exhibited.
“It is not OK,” she said. “I am thinking of the lack of trust from our community because of the actions that were taken. It has cost this district more than money.”
Trustee Kim De Serpa seconded the motion. It passed 6-0, with Acosta absent.
In other action, the trustees approved a second interim budget report that shows improving finances and a positive budget certification, meaning the district believes it can meet expenses for the next three years.
In addition, the board approved an agreement with California School Employee Association, Chapter 132, the union that supports classified school employees. In the agreement is a one-time $473 payment and no changes to health and welfare benefits.
The trustees also approved a plan to bring students back to in-person instruction earlier than previously thought, thanks to Santa Cruz County reducing its numbers of Covid-19 cases and moving to the red tier of restrictions.
Under the plan, preschool-first grade will return on April 5, and second–fifth grade will come back on April 12.
Eighth graders are slated to begin classes on April 19, and small groups of 6–7 and 9–11 graders will come back on the same day. Grade 12 will start on April 12.
The return also comes thanks to Senate Bill 86, a law that among other things would provide $2 billion to schools statewide that brought their students back to class. The bill has passed through the state legislature, and Gov. Gavin Newsom is expected to sign it on Friday.
Rodriguez said that the law carries a 1 percent penalty for everyday a district does not offer in-person instruction.
In related action, the trustees approved a one-time $3,846 stipend for teachers who will be providing in person instruction as well as distance learning in the same day.