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September 30, 2022

PVUSD Trustees rescind superintendent dismissal, appoint new leaders

Editor’s note: This story was updated from a previous version.

WATSONVILLE—The Pajaro Valley Unified School District Board of Trustees late Sunday night voted unanimously to rescind the recent dismissal of Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez after a seven-hour special meeting.

The trustees also unanimously nominated Jennifer Holm as board President, and Jennifer Schacher as Vice-President, replacing Georgia Acosta and Oscar Soto, respectively. The vote came about one month after Acosta and Soto were appointed to the positions.

Acosta and Soto said that death threats to themselves and their families following Wednesday’s vote led them to reverse their initial decision to terminate the district superintendent.

“This is very unfortunate and I am sure a part of why we are here, where we are at today,” Acosta said in a statement at the beginning of Sunday’s meeting. “I serve in this position as a community service. However, I have to and always will put the health, safety and well-being of my family as my first priority in my life. With that, I will be voting today to rescind my vote regarding the termination of the employment agreement of Dr. Rodriguez.”

Schacher said that her decision was not based on threats or board pressure. Instead, she says the discussion should have been more transparent.

Rodriguez was abruptly fired Wednesday night in a 4-3 vote that occurred in closed session. Trustees Soto, Acosta, Schacher and Daniel Dodge, Jr. voted in favor. A special meeting held Friday to consider an interim superintendent erupted into an unprecedented bout of fighting among the trustees, and after several hours of public comment Schacher said she was reversing her vote. She also apologized to Rodriguez.

“I am the voice of my constituents in my district, and I will represent them to the best of my ability,” she said at Sunday’s meeting.

With her initial vote, Schacher said she was speaking for students, teachers and staff who have raised “red flags and valid concerns” over the past two years.

As an example, Schacher said that students in her trustee area had to bring blankets to their school for three months because there was no heat.

Schacher called for an improvement plan regarding outstanding grievances, with a performance review of Rodriguez within 90 days.

She also called for a board study session and a trainer to review board bylaws, procedures and open-meeting rules.

Schacher also asked for a method for staff, parents and students to voice concerns.

“This board must remain accountable and transparent, with complete focus on the education of our children,” Schacher said.

Dodge also issued an apology for his vote, saying that the process was not transparent.

“I made a mistake in my vote in front of thousands of people from my hometown, the Pajaro Valley, the entire Pajaro Valley Unified School District, Santa Cruz and Monterey County,” he said.

Dodge added that he was listening to the will of his constituents in reversing his vote.

He also offered to resign his role on the agenda setting committee.

Holm said she also received several “expletive-laden” calls, and said the threatening calls trustees received are “unfortunate.”

“This isn’t how we deal with disagreements,” she said. “I would ask community members, feel strongly but treat everyone with respect.”

In an echo of the special board meeting Friday night, more than 200 comments were read during the meeting, the majority of which were in favor of Rodriguez.

But not all were complimentary. Several commenters—many of them anonymous—supported her ouster. The majority of those comments said Rodriguez had long overlooked the district’s classified staff and failed to raise teachers’ salaries.

It was not immediately clear whether Rodriguez will accept her job back. In a statement to this newspaper, she said she would.

“I am committed to PVUSD, and to the students and families we serve,” she said.

Dodge, Soto and Acosta have yet to say why they first voted to fire Rodriguez. The trio has cited personnel confidentiality

A change in leadership

In voting to remove Acosta and Soto from the President and Vice-President roles, Holm said she was concerned about the transparency behind Rodriguez’s dismissal, and the fact that the district made no statement to the public.

“The way this was handled was done in such a way that there hasn’t been an opportunity to explain to the public,” she said. “This was a boulder dropped into the pond of this community, and it was damaging. We can do better than this. We can be stewards of our constituents and we can still maintain privacy.”

Soto, who was elected to the board in November, said he was willing to step down as Vice-President and to learn the board process.

“This is a learning experience for me,” he said. “I want to be wholeheartedly involved, which is why I stepped up as Vice-President.” 

Orozco called the dismissal, and the turmoil that ensued, “embarrassing.”

“It was irresponsible, and I’m afraid that if there was a lack of trust within the community before, I think it’s more so now,” she said.

Orozco said the board would release a statement about the incident soon.

Whirlwind week

In other action, the trustees unanimously approved naming Lou Lozano of the Monterey-based Lozano Smith law firm to represent the board in this matter.

The item was agendized after Acosta on Friday brought in Chico-based attorney Matthew Paul Juhl-Darlington to serve as legal counsel.

That was one of a handful of incidents that caused confusion for trustees, staff and the public.

Another was Acosta’s reported use of a non-district authorized Zoom link to conduct Wednesday’s closed-session meeting.

Rodriguez, who also received the link, said in a text to this newspaper Sunday morning that she expressed concerns about security issues, to no avail. Rodriguez said that later Acosta denied her requests to join the meeting.

“When closed session began, I requested and was denied access multiple times,” Rodriguez stated. “I was not permitted to ever speak to the other Board Members in closed session on Wednesday night.”

Acosta has declined multiple requests for comment. She did not comment on Sunday.                  

Rodriguez says the official PVUSD Zoom account is Executive level, which offers additional security features and is linked to the district’s double fire wall. The use of an outside link—which PVUSD spokeswoman Alicia Jimenez says bore a CSU Monterey Bay logo–could have allowed others to access the meeting, Rodriguez said.

“By doing so she ensured that she was the only one that had the permission to allow me into the meeting,” Rodriguez stated.

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