Michelle Rodriguez
(Pajaro Valley Unified School District)
K-12 Education

No reason for firing given, ousted PVUSD Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez says

Rodriguez’s ouster comes during a pivotal moment as the district gears up to vaccinate teachers and return the bulk of its students to classrooms. It also comes just six months after the school board awarded her a $222,820-a-year contract

The ousted superintendent of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District says she’s as in the dark as anyone about her abrupt dismissal in a 4-3 vote late Wednesday night.

“I was not allowed into closed session to speak to the board, nor was I provided a reason for the board invoking the early termination clause in my contract,” Michelle Rodriguez said in a statement to Lookout on Thursday.

Her ouster comes during a pivotal moment as the district gears up to vaccinate teachers and return the bulk of its students to classrooms. It also comes just six months after the school board awarded her a $222,820-a-year contract that doesn’t expire until summer 2024.

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Early termination — as opposed to a “for cause” firing — would entitle Rodriguez to a payout of up to a year’s worth of salary, as well as continued health insurance, according to her contract.

No reason has been offered publicly for her dismissal. Trustee Georgia Acosta, the board’s president, has said only that she and trustees Jennifer Schacher, Oscar Soto and Daniel Dodge Jr. voted to dismiss Rodriguez, while trustees Jennifer Holm, Maria Orozco and Kim De Serpa opposed it.

Nelly Vaquera-Boggs, president of the Pajaro Valley Federation of Teachers, said the move caught the teachers’ union by surprise.

“We do want to know what happened, and why, and we’d like to know as soon as we can so we don’t have people spiraling into speculation,” Vaquera-Boggs said.

Two trustees reached by Lookout — both of whom opposed the firing — said they were advised by an attorney representing the district that they couldn’t discuss any specifics behind the decision because it is a personnel matter.

None of the four trustees who voted in favor of Rodriguez’s firing responded to requests for comment.

“I’m sorry I can’t talk about any of the reasons, but they felt she needed to go,” De Serpa said. “I can tell you very strongly that trustee Orozco, Holm and myself feel devastated, heartbroken and were completely against this move. I don’t think it’s warranted at all.”

According to De Serpa, the firing reflects a deeper division on the school board.

“It’s very confusing to me,” De Serpa said. “I don’t know what they’re trying to do except undo all the progress made in the district over the past five years.”

The firing also prompted a rebuke from Monterey County Supervisor Luis Alejo, a former Watsonville mayor who attended PVUSD schools. Alejo urged trustees to reverse course in an email he publicly posted Thursday, writing they had “unjustly fired the best superintendent that our schools have ever had,” and calling the decision “politically motivated.”

Rodriguez’s termination took effect immediately, according to district spokesperson Alicia Jimenez. An interim superintendent will be appointed at a special trustee meeting set for 4 p.m. Friday, according to Jimenez and Acosta.

In the meantime, a group of top district officials “will continue to lead the district with a student-centered focus,” Jimenez said via email. She said she was unable to provide any additional details on Rodriguez’s firing.

Based in Watsonville, PVUSD is the largest school district in Santa Cruz County, with an enrollment of nearly 20,000 students in grades K-12 — roughly half of all public school students in the county.

Watsonville Mayor Jimmy Dutra — also a teacher in the district, at Pajaro Valley Middle School — added his own voice to calls for greater transparency around the ouster on Thursday. He said he has been inundated with questions and messages about the district’s move on social media.

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“Transparency is completely important,” Dutra said. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic, people are already scared and this adds even more uncertainty on the plate for a lot of people.”

Rodriguez was named superintendent in August 2016, following the retirement of longtime district leader Dorma Baker. Before taking the reins at PVUSD, she served as an assistant superintendent for a district in Orange County. She holds a doctorate in educational psychology from the University of Southern California.

In her statement Thursday, Rodriguez expressed her confidence in the students, staff and families who she said she had worked to move toward “greater levels of educational equity” during her years at the helm.

“We were doing powerful work and I hope that the staff continues to center their focus on what is best for our students,” she said.