Report: John Kelly orchestrated firing of former Sonoma superintendent Soccoro Shiels
The 2020 firing of former Sonoma Valley Unified School District Superintendent Soccoro Shiels was politically motivated, according to a Feb. 16 report released by the district.
According to an investigator hired by district administrators, Trustee John Kelly orchestrated the abrupt end to Shiels contract to protect a labor agreement that has become the center of a nine-month investigation.
“…good governance principals were consistently violated by then-board President Kelly and his conduct constituted an abuse of the power invested by board bylaws in the board presidency,” the investigator, attorney Scott Kivel, said in the 39-page report.
The Project Labor Agreement (PLA), which trustees approved in November 2020 but then rescinded in May 2021, would have required the district to hire union workers affiliated with the North Bay Building and Construction Trades Council on construction projects over $50,000 for 10 years.
The report was marked “preliminary” because several individuals -- Shiels, Kelly and former trustees Britta Johnson and Catalina Wetzel – did not agree to be interviewed. Kivel worked from documents, digital communications and interviews with school trustees Cathy Coleman and Melanie Blake, former Trustee Helen Marsh, Associate Superintendent Bruce Abbott, past and present school district attorneys Carl Corbin, Roman Munoz and Anne Collins and former interim superintendent Charles Young, who filed the complaint that launched the investigation.
In his report, Kivel said Kelly -- working on his own, using his personal devices and email addresses -- negotiated the agreement with the union group without the knowledge of other trustees or district officials. While Shiels was copied on occasional communication about the agreement, emails exchanged show that she looked to Kelly for guidance on the issue.
“The PLA item caught the attention of the press. They will be doing an article for tomorrow and we are unsure how to answer them or how to proceed,” Shiels wrote to Kelly and Munoz on Nov. 16, 2020, the day before the agreement was approved by the board.
Kelly asked the superintendent and legal counsel to “refrain from further discussion” outside the meeting. Meanwhile, Kelly asked Munoz to prepare two documents for that meeting. The first was a contract extension for Shiels, while the other was a settlement agreement for $21,000 she was overpaid in a “clerical error” after her pay rate was raised.
For 16 months, no one caught the $1,308 a month variance, which was discovered in October 2020 during a routine financial review. Ultimately, Shiels agreed to have the overpayment subtracted from her December 2020 severance package, which included a one-time lump sum payment of the cash equivalent of her salary and benefits through Sept. 30, 2021. Her gross salary was $18,148.63 per month, with $761.79 per month for benefits.
Kelly had been supportive of Shiels, according to her June 2020 performance review. On Nov. 6, 2020, he pushed for her to receive one year’s paid salary should the board end her contract, which otherwise would continue on indefinitely, to protect her against “capricious dismissal,” he told Munoz in an email.
But tensions grew, according to the report, when district officials and Kelly disagreed on how to place the PLA agenda item at the Nov. 17, 2020, school board meeting. Shiels and Munoz thought it should be open for board discussion, while Kelly pushed for it to be on the consent agenda, which is reserved for basic items that typically don’t require discussion.
According to Munoz, Kelly grew concerned Shiels might alert other trustees or reporters to the PLA process.
That’s when Kelly seemed to turn on Shiels, according to witnesses present at the Nov. 17 meeting. A “furious” Kelly told his fellow board members that Shiels should be “fired” for “fraud” and “misuse of public funds,” Trustee Melanie Blake said in her investigation interviews.
In the report, Kivel said Kelly claimed Shiels had refused to pay back the money she was overpaid, a fact the investigator could not corroborate. Kelly sought her immediate dismissal because he claimed he had only learned that day about the overpayment, a fact that was disproven based on his communications with Munoz and Abbott leading up to the meeting.
Shiels was not permitted in the room, or allowed to defend herself, according to the report.
By the end of the meeting, board voted unanimously to fire Shiels and to approve the labor agreement.
In its “conclusion,” the report states, Kelly provided “misinformation” and prevented his colleagues from questioning Shiels “to further advance his goal of silencing former Superintendent Shiels from speaking out against Trustee Kelly’s vigorous push to have his PLA approved at the November 2020 board meeting.”
The labor agreement, rescinded six months after it was passed when two new trustees joined the dais, is now the center of a lawsuit between the district and the North Bay Building and Construction Council. Through Jan. 5, that lawsuit has cost the district $90,881.
The district spent another $92,000 on the labor agreement investigation, which resulted in a damning Jan. 28 report against Kelly about his role in negotiating the PLA, in addition to the Feb. 16 report about Shiels. At its last regular meeting, the school board discussed plans to censure Kelly, a formal reprimand.
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