Reporter Todd Guild has been covering the Pajaro Valley Unified School District (PVUSD) for nearly 14 years. In that time, he has covered well over 200 board meetings and gained insight into the inner workings of the agency, particularly in the way meetings are run.
What he saw from Jan. 27, when the district’s Board of Trustees abruptly voted 4-3 to fire Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez, to Jan. 31, when they unanimously reinstated her, was unprecedented in many ways. Below is a timeline of the events.
Trustee Georgia Acosta—who served as board president for less than a month before being ousted on Jan. 31, has declined numerous requests for comment, and has never stated publicly the reasons behind Rodriguez’s termination.
Rodriguez says she was never given a reason, nor was she allowed to attend the meeting.
All told, PVUSD spokeswoman Alicia Jimenez spent more than 10 hours over two days reading hundreds of public comments. While some supported the decision to fire Rodriguez, the vast majority excoriated the board for the decision.
Wednesday, Dec. 16
Trustees Georgia Acosta and Oscar Soto are appointed as PVUSD board president and vice-president, respectively.
Wednesday, Jan. 27
The Board of Trustees holds its regular bi-monthly meeting, typically held Wednesdays at 7pm. This is the board’s first meeting of the year, and the first with Acosta at the helm. They are set to discuss a handful of fairly straightforward items. By 7:30pm, however, the meeting has not yet started. The district’s YouTube page informs viewers that it is delayed, and will start at 8pm. That time changes to 8:30pm and then to 9pm.
When it finally starts well after 9pm—an unprecedented two hours and 27 minutes late—it is board president Georgia Acosta that is leading it, not Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez, who usually does. There is no explanation.
The trustees begin by giving their condolences to Rodriguez for her father’s death the day before. Acosta makes no immediate mention of Rodriguez’s absence, and the meeting proceeds normally until Acosta pulls several items from the agenda that Rodriguez was set to discuss. Acosta explains that other staff are not prepared to discuss them.
In removing the agenda items, Acosta explains only that “Superintendent Dr. Michelle Rodriguez is not able to be with us tonight.”
But at the end of the meeting, when the board reports discussions that occurred in closed session, Acosta announces that the board voted 4-3 to terminate Rodriguez’s contract early.
In an unusual move, Acosta also states publicly how the vote broke down: in addition to Acosta, trustees Oscar Soto, Daniel Dodge Jr., and Jennifer Schacher voted in favor of the termination. Trustees Kim De Serpa, Maria Orozco and Jennifer Holm dissented.
Thursday, Jan. 28
A special meeting is set for Friday at 4pm to appoint an interim superintendent and handle board business not covered Wednesday.
Friday, Jan. 29
At that meeting, Acosta asks PVUSD spokeswoman Alicia Jimenez if there are any public comments. Jimenez announces that there are approximately 200.
To put that number into context, the closest the board came to having that many comments was in 2008, when the PVUSD board of trustees was making a series of budget cuts in response to the economic recession. At that time, 80 people signed up.
Acosta says she will only accept comments directly related to approving an interim superintendent, and will defer the rest to the next board meeting. She warns Jimenez that she will stop any comments that do not follow that edict.
The first comment is a video from actor James Edward Olmos, who starts by praising Rodriguez. Acosta demands that Jimenez stop the comment, saying it is not related to the interim superintendent.
Jimenez stresses that the comments submitted by the public were indeed related, since it was Rodriguez’s termination that prompted the discussion.
“And I will continue,” Jimenez asserts. Later, she adds, “I would like to be respectful to the public and read the comments, please.”
What follows is a series of back-and-forth sparring between Acosta—who argues that the night’s discussion must be solely related to the interim-supervisor item—and trustees Holm, Orozco and De Serpa and Jimenez, who say they want to hear the comments.
San Luis Obispo-based attorney Matthew Paul Juhl-Darlington, whose law firm DWK represents the district on a handful of business issues, stops the meeting, suggesting the trustees close the public meeting and return to closed session to discuss the matter.
It is not clear why Acosta has asked Juhl-Darlington—and not Lou Lozano—whose law firm Lozano Smith has historically represented the district on broader issues—to be at the meeting.
The board returns about 13 minutes later, and Juhl-Darlington reiterates Acosta’s position. Undeterred, Jimenez and the trustees argue for the comments to be read.
De Serpa questions why Juhl-Darlington is at the meeting, and makes a motion to bring Lozano into the meeting, telling Acosta, “You do not have the right to block our legal counsel from being here. Matt is not the legal counsel for this district, he is not legal counsel for the board.” The motion is seconded by Orozco.
However, in an unprecedented move, Acosta refuses to allow De Serpa’s motion to go to a vote, saying she has the power as board president to do so. Juhl-Darlington backs her up on that assertion.
Acosta warns Jimenez that if she continues to read comments Acosta feels are not germane to the conversation, she will remove Jimenez and have Juhl-Darlington read them. Juhl-Darlington and Acosta argue that a set of open-meeting laws known as the Brown Act place limitations on public comments during special meetings.
Acosta continually interrupts Jimenez reading the comments, until Orozco calls for a vote to end the meeting.
Then, in yet another unprecedented move, Acosta chastises Orozco for her insistence that the public comments be read, before saying she will allow them all to continue. “You know what, we will continue, and we will deal, I guess, with the legal fallout and repercussions,” says Acosta. “Thank you, Trustee Orozco, for putting us in that very vulnerable position in the district.”
After nearly five hours of public testimony, Schacher makes a motion to rescind Rodriguez’s termination, saying, “I apologize to my community and to Dr. Rodriguez, as I can’t legally discuss personnel issues. I can and I will learn from my mistakes. My vote was extremely difficult and complicated. However I believe now that my grievances could have been handled differently. In light of the fragility of our current times, I think this motion needs to be made.”
De Serpa seconds the motion, but Acosta and Juhl-Darlington argue—correctly, in this case—that such a decision is not on the agenda, and can therefore not move forward. De Serpa argues again that Juhl-Darlington is not the district’s legal counsel.
Finally, the trustees approve a second special meeting to consider rescinding Rodriguez’s termination.
Saturday, Jan. 30
PVUSD officials announce a special meeting to be held on Sunday at 3pm. On the agenda—which De Serpa creates after Acosta fails to do so all day—is bringing Lou Lozano as legal counsel, rescinding Rodriguez’s termination and removing Acosta and Soto from their leadership positions.
Sunday, Jan. 31
Rodriguez contacts me, saying that in the hours before the Wednesday meeting, Acosta sent a link to the trustees—and to Rodriguez—for a Zoom meeting. Rodriguez says she expressed concern about security, since the link was not associated with PVUSD’s secure account. Rodriguez believes that Acosta did so so she could exclude her from the meeting.
At the 3pm meeting, Acosta does not object to the public comments, which take more than six hours for Jimenez to read.
Acosta and Soto announce they plan to reverse their votes, citing death threats they received in the wake of the Wednesday meeting. (I have reached out to the Santa Cruz and Monterey County sheriff’s offices, and the Watsonville Police Department. None have said they received reports of death threats.)
Dodge also announces he will vote to reinstate Rodriguez, after apologizing to the community. Schacher appears to be attempting to justify her earlier vote when she says she was speaking for students, teachers and staff who raised concerns. She calls for a 90-day performance review for Rodriguez, and for board training to review bylaws, procedures and open meeting rules. She also calls for a platform for students, teachers and students to report their concerns. The trustees unanimously agree to allow Lozano into the meeting as legal counsel, and vote to remove Acosta as board president and Soto as vice-president.
Trustees Holm and Schacher are appointed as president and vice-president, respectively. Holm sums up the events of the last week by saying, “The way this was handled was done in such a way that there hasn’t been an opportunity to explain to the public. And even with that, there has been no statement to the public …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.”
The trustees unanimously rescind Rodriguez’s termination, setting up Rodriguez’s return to work the next day.