LOOKOUT INVESTIGATES: Documents obtained by Lookout and interviews with district and county education officials reveal how a gloomy — but improving — financial forecast for the Pajaro Valley Unified School District came to a head the week Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez was abruptly fired.
Two days after the abrupt firing of Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez, an unusual post surfaced on the Pajaro Valley Unified School District website.
It linked to a pair of letters — the first detailing a shaky financial forecast for the district, and the second regarding an emerging plan to improve it.
Within hours, the post was deleted.
According to two district officials, it was created at the direction of then-president of the PVUSD Board of Trustees Georgia Acosta, who supported Rodriguez’s ouster.
And its deletion was among a series of events regarding the district’s fiscal health that occurred between Rodriguez’s Jan. 27 firing and Jan. 31 reinstatement, according to documents obtained by Lookout and interviews with district and county education officials.
It is unclear if there’s a direct connection between the district’s budget outlook and Rodriguez’s firing. But the story of the now-deleted post reveals how the issue came to a head behind the scenes as the leadership saga played out in public.
Underscoring the tension simmering within PVUSD, it appears Acosta wanted only one of the two letters — the one painting a grim picture of district finances — to go live on the district’s website. But when staff also posted the second document — the letter providing a more positive outlook — Acosta asked them to take that document down, they said.
Rather than delete just one, they chose to delete the entire post.
Leading up to the dramatic January week, PVUSD’s school board reviewed an internal budget report in December projecting a growing shortfall that could force staff or program cuts and drain district reserves below the 3% minimum by the 2022-23 school year.
Consistent with a gloomy forecast from the summer, the projected deficit came amid the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, higher employee costs, and enrollment that is continuing to decline.
In response, the school board by a 6-1 vote self-certified its interim budget as “qualified” — a designation that falls between positive and negative and acknowledges the district could fail to meet financial obligations over the next three years.
Without any explanation, Acosta cast the lone “no” vote. She hasn’t responded to numerous requests for comment from Lookout regarding any of the events surrounding Rodriguez’s termination and reinstatement.
The Santa Cruz County Office of Education, which has oversight of local districts’ budgets, agreed there was cause for concern.
PVUSD is the only district in Santa Cruz County without a positive budget certification, according to Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah — though he said several districts came close this cycle.
“I think everybody has gone through a pretty intense fiscal situation,” Sabbah said, noting the challenges the pandemic and other factors have posed.
In a Jan. 14 letter addressed to Acosta, and copied to the rest of the board, the county office concurred with PVUSD’s certification and told the district to submit a preliminary plan to stabilize its finances by Feb. 1.
“The district has significant decisions to make in order to remain fiscally solvent,” wrote Liann Reyes, the county office’s deputy superintendent of business services. “We encourage the district to engage in meaningful and transparent dialogue with its stakeholders.”
At the school board’s next meeting, on Jan. 27, Rodriguez was fired in a 4-3 vote.
Responding ‘as quickly as possible’
The next day, on Jan. 28, PVUSD chief budget officer Clint Rucker submitted the district’s preliminary fiscal stabilization plan in advance of the Feb. 1 deadline.
The plan accounts for Gov. Gavin Newsom’s funding proposal from earlier in January, a boon for school district budgets. Assuming the state’s proposed cost of living adjustment funding comes through, PVUSD would be able to cover its projected deficit, according to the stabilization plan.
After receiving the plan, the County Office of Education moved quickly to respond.
One day later, on Jan. 29, Reyes sent another letter on behalf of the county office acknowledging the plan met the requirement and shows that — if expected state funding manifests — “the District’s shortfall of $3.3 million would be covered and the District would return to positive status and no longer be in qualified status.”
Asked about the rapid turnaround, Sabbah, the county schools chief, said he advised his staff that, amid the PVUSD leadership vacuum, “we needed to review and respond” to the plan “as quickly as possible.”
“We weren’t getting involved in any of the political aspects that were happening, we just wanted to be clear,” Sabbah said.
Deleted post, unusual direction
Events continued to play out quickly on Jan. 29, hours before a special board meeting originally set to pick an interim superintendent.
Acosta — then president of the board and one of the four votes in support of Rodriguez’s ouster — told PVUSD’s technology director Dan Weiser to post the Jan. 14 letter detailing the gloomy budget forecast, according to an account of the events confirmed by Weiser and Rucker, the PVUSD chief budget officer.
Weiser created the post, a cached version of which was reviewed by Lookout. But he took an additional step after consulting with Rucker: He included the second letter from the county office, which acknowledges the district appears to be on a path out of fiscal jeopardy.
“That’s the right thing to do for the public to stay transparent to show that, ‘Yes, here’s the letter, and here’s another letter showing that we actually have a plan in place, a preliminary plan in place to rectify the problem,’” Rucker said.
Acosta, by their account, disagreed.
She reached out to another staff member at PVUSD’s district office and asked that the second letter be removed. Instead, the district took down the post in its entirety.
If Acosta — who has never spoken publicly about any aspect of Rodriguez’s firing — did give direction to staff around the letters, it would raise questions about board policy.
The board’s bylaws state that “Unless agreed to by the Board as a whole, individual members of the Board shall not exercise any administrative responsibility with respect to the schools or command the services of any school employee.”
For her part, Rodriguez said she doesn’t know about any potential relationship between the budget forecast and her firing. She said no member of the board had given her negative feedback over the budget prospects, and she had updated the majority of the board about the promising news found in the state’s budget proposal.
“If it was [about the budget], I think it would have been really prudent of them to have let me into the closed session so that I could have spoken to the issue,” Rodriguez said, referencing the meeting during which she was fired.
The PVUSD board last week met for the first time since reinstating Rodriguez, where calls for answers around the firing continued.
It also marked the first meeting that Acosta no longer was serving as board president and her colleague Oscar Soto was no longer serving as vice president. Board members voted to remove both of them from their leadership positions in the wake of the public backlash over Rodriguez’s dismissal. Though they lost their positions as officers, Acosta and Soto — who alleged they’ve received death threats over their votes to oust Rodriguez — are remaining as trustees.
Asked about any potential connection between the budget forecast and Rodriguez’s dismissal, trustee Jennifer Holm — now president of the school board — said she couldn’t discuss the closed session because of employee confidentiality laws.
“One of the things that I’m trying to do right now is really listen to those concerns and try and navigate a path through finding the answers we can provide,” Holm said. “We still have that confidentiality constraint. So how do we navigate that? And I don’t have a great answer for that yet.”
Timeline of events:
Dec. 9: PVUSD board approves interim budget report, showing shortfall of $3.3 million in 2022-23 school year, with then-board President Georgia Acosta alone in opposition.
Jan. 14: Letter from Santa Cruz County Office of Education lays out district’s subpar “qualified” budget status and details a requirement to submit a preliminary recovery plan by Feb. 1.
Jan. 27: PVUSD trustees fire Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez in a 4-3 vote during a closed session.
Jan. 28: PVUSD submits its preliminary fiscal recovery plan.
Jan. 29: County Office of Education sends a letter acknowledging the plan meets requirements, shows path to cover projected shortfall.
Jan. 29: Acosta instructs staff to post the Jan. 14 letter to the district website, officials say. Staff members comply, but they also include the Jan. 29 letter. Acosta, school officials say, directs staff to remove second letter; instead, the staff deletes the entire post. Acosta has not responded to Lookout requests for comment.
Jan. 29: Special board meeting to pick interim superintendent instead ends with plan to consider Rodriguez’s reinstatement after public outcry.
Jan. 31: Rodriguez is unanimously reinstated, and Acosta and board vice president Oscar Soto are voted out as officers.