Censure of John Kelly reflects deep community divisions at Sonoma Valley Unified School District

The public comments at the meeting were heated and intense.|

Sonoma residents voiced a range of opinions Tuesday night before the Sonoma Valley Unified School District Board of Trustees’ voted to censure Trustee John Kelly, reflecting the deep divisions within the community.

Trustees Melanie Blake, Anne Ching, Cathy Coleman and Troy Knox voted in favor of the resolution, which said Kelly abused his authority by negotiating a labor agreement and orchestrated the firing of former Superintendent Socorro Shields. The document said Kelly cost the district more than $400,000 in attorney’s fees, Shiels’ severance package and other costs.

Kelly abstained from voting on the resolution, which prohibits him from serving on any trustee committees or in trustee leadership positions and suspends him from representing the district and the board in any official capacity at such gatherings as school ceremonies, fundraisers, conferences and sporting events.

“This is not the type of thing that should be in front of the board at all,” Kelly said at the meeting. “This is a board that has lost its way, and this process has consumed the board. This is not the way anything should proceed and is a sign of how bad things are now with the board.”

Resolution to censure John Kelly.pdf

After the meeting, Kelly said that the censure impacts trustees’ ability to collaborate.

“Our responsibility is to work together, and this affects our ability to discharge our responsibilities,” he said. “Personal issues were involved, but we need to set aside personal issues in the best interests of the community. I have personal feelings about the censure, but I can’t let my personal feelings get in the way of doing my job.

Kelly added he will continue serving Area 3, consisting of the southern portion of the Springs, a multicultural community with a disproportionately high number of English language-learners and special-needs students.

Steve Page, recently named Sonoma’s Alcalde (unofficial mayor) after retiring from running Sonoma Raceway for some 30 years, supported the resolution in the public comment portion of the meeting.

“I’ve had more than ample opportunity to weigh in over time for this board about Kelly’s abhorrent behavior,” he said.

“I will just remind you that you are dealing with an individual who has no apparent capacity for shame, and it’s incumbent upon you as trustees to make a definitive statement to our parents, to our teachers, to the district staff, to taxpayers in this district and most importantly to our students. Honesty, integrity and character are all qualities we should aspire to and that we should demand in our public officials.”

Trustee Troy Knox voiced his opinion about a report compiled by investigator Scott Kivel suggesting that Kelly’s self-interest was at play as he worked for the labor agreement while serving as board president.

“To me…what stuck out…was Trustee Kelly’s correspondence with the [North Bay Building and Construction Trades Council] unions. This is a violation, and all of us trustees know that, and from that point forward, the plan came about strictly through Trustee Kelly and the trade union. That’s way beyond his bounds,” he said.

Later, Trustee Anne Ching felt the board was duty-bound to censure Kelly.

“It’s important for us to work as a board to a high level of ethical standards,” she said. “I think we have to take action here. I think we have a duty to our students, to our community, to our taxpayers, to our parents, to family.”

She said that the resolution indicates that the district’s system of checks and balances is effective.

“We had something that did not go properly, and we caught it,” Ching said.

Trustee Melanie Blake lamented the growing divisiveness among board members.

“This isn’t about procedure anymore,” she said. “That’s where we started and that was the authentic and genuine intent of the board. But it’s become so personal, and with the kind of acts and community divisiveness we see now, nobody wins.”

Others – including parent Mindy Luby, who helped to create the school district’s Special Education Advisory Council (SEAC) — lauded Kelly during the public comment period.

“I’ve watched Trustee Kelly push back, I’ve watched him ask hard questions and I’ve watched him dig into really uncomfortable territory, territory that is hard to talk about, but I’ve never seen him bully anybody,” said Luby, the mother of four children, including three in individualized education programs.

SEAC is at the center of a different dispute with the district, which was layered in Tuesday night’s discussion.

After the council members withdrew from the district in December, Kelly filed a complaint with the District Attorney’s Office. He alleged the board and Superintendent Adrian Palazuelos broke the open meeting law known as the Brown Act by discussing a plan that would end SEAC while in San Diego at a December education conference.

The county’s DA’s office is investigating the complaint, which other board members and Palazuelos denied, while reigniting lingering friction between special education parents and the district.

“You may silence Trustee Kelly on the subject of special education, which we are very clear that this is what you are doing to try to cover up your own behavior, but you will never silence us,” Luby said. “You have unleashed a dragon, and I hope you are prepared for the fire that’s about to come.”

Parent Mario Castillo said that censuring Kelly lessens the representation of Area 3 on the board.

“I want to remind you that Trustee Kelly represents an area that is oftentimes not represented at all, and where a lot of Latinx families live,” he said. “Silencing him is directly silencing those of us who live in the Springs area. Silencing him means that you do not care about those of us who live in this area. Silencing him means that you do not care about those students who have been neglected for years.

“I’m going to be here and I’m going to keep reminding people how shameful you are. It’s really discrimination. You obviously don’t care if you vote to censure Trustee Kelly.”

After the meeting, Kelly elaborated on Castillo’s remarks.

“The point that Mario is trying to make is that the board works together, like five fingers, and that severing part on the hand impedes our ability to represent our constituents,” Kelly said . “We all have the important responsibility of discharging our responsibilities.”

Kelly said that Area 3 is among the poorest not only in Sonoma Valley, but in all of Sonoma County.

“It hasn’t received the level of service or government that it needs,” he said. “The people there know what it’s like to be treated badly, not just by the school district, but also by a host of agencies. These things, which the residents have experienced for decades, sear them like a burn, and this is exactly what happened at the meeting.

“This is something everyone needs to try to understand.”

Contact Dan Johnson at daniel.johnson@sonomanews.com.

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