PVUSD Trustee Georgia Acosta (left), until recently the school board's president, and Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez.
PVUSD Trustee Georgia Acosta (left), until recently the school board’s president, and Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez.
(PVUSD and Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
K-12 Education

PVUSD board votes against paying $16K in legal fees authorized by its former president

What happens next depends on the law firm that did the work: Dannis Woliver Kelley. The firm could once again bill the district, absorb the loss — or bill former school board president Georgia Acosta herself.

The Pajaro Valley Unified School District Board of Trustees on Wednesday voted against paying $16,000 in legal fees accrued during the brief ouster of Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez in late January.

The fees were authorized by former board president Georgia Acosta without approval from the rest of the board, in an apparent violation of board policy. The invoice is the result of dozens of hours of work performed by attorneys throughout January relating to weeks of preparation, and days of fallout, from Rodriguez’s abrupt dismissal.

Acosta was the only trustee absent from the Wednesday night meeting, where all six trustees present voted against paying the fees after an at-times emotional discussion.

“We shouldn’t authorize this type of behavior,” said trustee Maria Orozco. “It’s just not OK. I guess I’m just thinking about the lack of trust now in our community because of the actions that were taken and the way it was handled. It’s costing the district more than money.”

Acosta is facing mounting calls to resign from the board or face recall, including from Monterey County Supervisor Luis Alejo and former PVUSD trustee Jane Barr, who said Acosta had eroded public trust and caused “irreparable harm” to the district.

“If she chooses not to resign, the community should look long and hard at recalling her,” Barr said in a written comment. A recall would entail a petition drive akin to what is happening statewide with Gov. Gavin Newsom, though on a much smaller scale in PVUSD’s Trustee Area II, which Acosta represents.

Watsonville High School teacher Ryan Jones in a video message echoed those calls, saying he spends money out of his own pocket to support his students and has to ask “at least a month in advance” to be reimbursed to purchase a box of pencils.

Ohlone Elementary School teacher Anna Ybarra, meanwhile, said Acosta “did the right thing” in seeking legal advice from a law firm with more separation from Rodriguez. And several commenters questioned why the board is focusing on spending time discussing a relatively small sum of money. Others simply advised the board to move on.

On Wednesday, school board president Jennifer Holm said she, too, is anxious to move on. But she said she doesn’t take the question of how those funds are spent lightly.

“I spent 17 years as a parent at Rio Del Mar Elementary,” Holm said. “There’s sidewalks having issues, there’s stairs — hey, we could fix those. There’s so many things we could do with $16,000. I know in the grand scheme of things it’s small, but it’s not. It’s not. And we as a board did not have a chance to make that decision.”

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Acosta has not returned repeated requests for comment and has yet to publicly address the legal fees or other questions raised about possible policy violations around direction district officials said she gave to staff to create, then later delete, a post on the district website.

She’s served as PVUSD’s Trustee Area II representative since 2016. Bounded to the west by Green Valley Road, the trustee area encompasses northeastern Watsonville to the Santa Clara County line.

On Jan. 27, Superintendent Rodriguez was briefly and dramatically fired, a move that was reversed just days later after widespread public outcry that included the likes of actor Edward James Olmos. During the meeting that saw Rodriguez reinstated, Acosta was removed from her position as board president.

Attorneys from law firm Dannis Woliver Kelley billed for $16,038 worth of work in January relating to Rodriguez’s dismissal, starting with a teleconference with Acosta on Jan. 12, according to the firm’s invoice. It included strategizing, preparing memos and travel fees, and analysis of “administrative” and “personnel” issues.

Dannis Woliver Kelley has a relationship with PVUSD dating back at least several years. According to 2019 legal services overview, the firm was primarily used in the areas of business services, facilities, bond programs while another firm, Lozano Smith, served as the district’s general counsel and oversaw human resources issues.

Dannis Woliver Kelley attorney Matt Juhl-Darlington performed much of the January work, the invoice shows. He also billed the district for attending Jan. 27 meeting at which Rodriguez was fired and the Jan. 29 meeting originally set to pick her interim replacement. Trustee Kim De Serpa vigorously objected to his presence at those meetings, saying he had never previously advised the board.

Then, on Jan. 31, the board voted to clarify that their usual firm — Lozano Smith — should be advising them moving forward.

The invoice describes strategizing, analysis of “personnel issues,” drafting memos, and travel expenses to and from the district for the Jan. 27 meeting.

The invoice also includes a single vague reference to communication “with COE re stabilization issues.” That line appears to refer to the Santa Cruz County Office of Education, and the fiscal stabilization effort that a Lookout report revealed came to a head in the district the last week of January.

On Wednesday, De Serpa said she has lingering questions about the dozens of hours of legal work solicited by Acosta.

De Serpa called on district staff to more thoroughly review that work “just to get an understanding of what the heck was going on, because I am still very confused by it all.”

What happens next depends on Dannis Woliver Kelley. The firm could once again bill the district, absorb the loss — or bill Acosta herself, according to Rodriguez. Dannis Woliver Kelley did not immediately return a request for comment.

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