Phil Rodriguez resigned from his seat on the Soquel Union Elementary School District board in September — about two months before the end of his term and in the midst of his reelection campaign. Now that it appears that he’s winning — it was too late to remove his name from the ballot — his opponent, parents and unions wonder if it was a fair election.
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Parents and teachers in the Soquel Union Elementary School District are demanding answers after an incumbent trustee who resigned from his seat in September appears likely to be reelected to the same seat.
Phil Rodriguez is leading the race for SUESD Governing Board Trustee Area 4 against Justin Maffia — a newcomer who received endorsements from both the teachers and classified unions. As of Friday, he had 58% of the vote.
Rodriguez, who has served on the board for nearly a decade, filed this summer to run for another four-year term. But weeks later, at a Sept. 7 board meeting, he announced his resignation from the board, effective immediately.
At that point, it was too late to remove his name from the ballot. However, those who knew about Rodriguez’s resignation, including Maffia, say they understood it meant that he was no longer running for reelection.
Yet with the Nov. 8 votes almost all counted, Rodriguez now appears headed for reelection with 57.9% of the vote to Maffia’s 41.51%.
Rodriguez declined to comment for this article. But he told Lookout on Nov. 4 that he intended to serve the term if reelected: “My record with the SUESD has been consistent, I have always said yes when asked to step up. If my friends and neighbors select me on Nov. 8 I will serve.”
District Superintendent Scott Turnbull also confirmed in a statement that Rodriguez had “decided to honor” the results if he does win. He said the district and school board “don’t have any influence on the election process” and will not make any further comment about the election.
Parent Chris Amsden, who backed Maffia’s campaign, told Lookout he feels as though Rodriguez manipulated the election “so that his challenger would not pose a rigorous campaign against him,” he said.
Maffia told Lookout that after Rodriguez resigned, Maffia and the unions who had endorsed him ran their campaign as if Maffia was running unopposed — not putting up as many signs, for example.
Rodriguez’s letter of resignation didn’t indicate the reason for ending his term, according to the letter provided to Lookout by the district. Rodriguez told Lookout his retirement was a personal decision. He declined repeated requests from Lookout to discuss the details of his resignation from the board in September, or why he did not make it clear to voters that he had resigned.
“I’m sorry but it appears that Lookout is writing a story to cater to an ‘OK boomer’ retirees should ‘stay retired’ readership,” he wrote in an email Thursday. “I am not a fan of yellow journalism. I know that you will pillory me, that is your job, but I will not participate in this ageist, retiree-bashing attack piece.”
(On Nov. 3, Lookout Santa Cruz, not yet knowing about Rodriguez’s resignation, published a questionnaire interviewing both candidates. Rodriguez answered the questions and didn’t mention his resignation.)
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D-R Martin, president of the Soquel Education Association, said she’d like to understand the circumstances better as Rodriguez hasn’t offered any clear reasoning for his resignation and subsequent willingness to serve.
“What was the thought process behind that?” Martin asked. “You know there’s an election coming up. You’re saying you’re willing to serve if you’re elected. Then why retire two months before the election?”
Amsden, the Soquel parent, acknowledged Rodriguez’s many years of serving the community on the board, but said it feels as though Rodriguez tricked the community by leading voters to believe he wasn’t planning to serve if elected.
It is not the first time that Rodriguez has resigned from a position with the board. In 2015, Amsden was involved in an effort to recall Rodriguez and two other trustees from the board over concerns about a dispute involving an increase to the then-superintendent’s salary, among other issues.
The recall effort ended in July 2015 when Rodriguez resigned as board president — but remained a trustee — and the former superintendent, Henry Castaniada, announced he would retire at the end of the following academic year. New board members were appointed and the parents felt the problem was resolved, according to Amsden.
So when Rodriguez resigned in September and then later said he would serve if elected, Amsden felt this showed that yet again Rodriguez wasn’t being transparent. “That’s the pattern that Phil has exhibited for many years,” Amsden said. “It’s dishonesty.”
Amsden brought his concerns to the school board at its Wednesday meeting. He argues that Rodriguez can’t have the trust of the community unless he resigns. The board would then have to appoint someone to the seat.
“If [the board chooses Phil], then that would eliminate the deception,” said Amsden.