Sonoma Valley school board to hold meeting Friday to appoint acting superintendent

The Sonoma Valley Unified School District will hold a special meeting on Friday, Nov. 18, to discuss the appointment of an acting superintendent and the discipline or dismissal of an unnamed public employee.|

The Sonoma Valley Unified School District Board of Trustees will hold a meeting on Friday to discuss the appointment of an acting superintendent and the discipline or release of an unidentified public employee.

On Thursday, Deputy Superintendent Elizabeth Kaufman sent an email to the Sonoma Index-Tribune in which she stated that Superintendent Dr. Adrian Palazuelos “ … is out on leave. It is an extended medical leave, and he has appointed me as the superintendent’s designee.”

Kaufman did not indicate when Palazuelos is expected to return or how his absence will impact the district.

Some 90 minutes later after that email, the district announced the special meeting to consider the “discipline/dismissal/release” of a public employee and the appointment of an acting superintendent.

Trustee John Kelly said that he doesn’t know if the two items are related.

Palazuelos has not been at his office or actively serving in his position for several weeks, with no public explanations given. This has triggered questions and concerns throughout the school district community.

During a public comment period at the Board of Trustees meeting on Tuesday Celeste Winders — a mother of four local students who ran for the Area 2 seat on the board in this month’s elections — expressed frustration with the lack of information about why Palazuelos has been absent.

“I have not seen our supervisor in quite a while,” she said. “I’m quite concerned that he is not here at this meeting. He was not at the study session regarding the facilities discussion. He has not sent out a newsletter in a while. He has not been communicating, and I’m just curious if our board can inform the public where our superintendent is. Do we have an acting one who is steering this ship?”

Winders said that as parents and taxpayers, she and others should be informed about Palazuelos’ situation.

“We (SVUSD) are funded by federal and state dollars, and you (the board) are responsible for the education of our children,” she said. “We have a right to know where our superintendent is and when we can expect to see him participate in our district again.”

After Winders spoke, Board President Cathy Coleman said Palazuelos is out on leave and that Kaufman is handling his responsibilities, without explaining why Palazuelos has been absent.

Sonoma Valley High School video arts teacher Peter Hansen then provided a public comment, saying, “Dr. Palazuelos is missing. I’m a taxpayer and I live here, and I’m paying part of his salary. My money is going somewhere, and I would like to know where it’s going.”

Palazuelos, who took over June 1, 2021, replaced prior SVUSD Superintendent Socorro Shiels, who served for two years before being released from the troubled district unexpectedly in November 2020. Interim Superintendent Esmeralda Mondragon held the post from December 2020 through April 2021.

Palazuelos signed a three-year contract with a salary of $230,000 per year in addition to health, dental and vision plan coverage, and a monthly travel budget of $400.

In October, Sonoma County’s outgoing Superintendent of Schools Steve Herrington recommended that the district, which is experiencing financial troubles, create a Budget Advisory Committee as part of a plan to eliminate deficit spending and reduce its expenditures.

“Even though the district meets minimum reserve requirements, the county office remains concerned about ongoing deficit spending,” wrote Sarah Lampenfeld, director of external fiscal services for the Sonoma County Office of Education, in a Sept. 15 letter to Palazuelos. “We urge the district to review and monitor revenues, expenditures and balances of all funds.”

The district has been dipping into its reserves this year in order to balance a budget hindered by rising expenditures.

As a result, Sonoma Valley is projected to drop below the 3% threshold as soon as 2024-25, when it shows $63.51 million in revenues, $68.43 million in expenditures and a balance of -$1.87 million in reserves — down from $8.91 million at the end of the current school year.

Maintaining the required 3% reserves has previously been a problem for the school district. Its 2017-18 budget was given “qualified status,” which prompted a spending freeze and other cost-cutting measures.

The current financial problems have been caused by several factors, including larger than expected construction costs that have been drawing from the $120 million Measure E school bond issue and steadily declining enrollment, which is expected to fall by an average of 92 students during each of the next nine academic years, reaching a low of 2,413 in 2031-32.

The Sonoma Valley Unified School District oversees 3,265 students from K-12, with five elementary schools, two middle schools, one high school and two charter K-8 schools.

Friday’s meeting will start at 1 p.m. at the SVUSD office, 17850 Railroad Ave., and consist of a public comment period, followed by a closed session. The board is then scheduled to reconvene in open session and describe any actions that were taken in closed session.

The open sessions of the meeting can be viewed on Zoom (webinar ID No. 967 7513 0106) and viewers can make public comments by calling 669-900-9128.

(This story will be updated as it develops and more information becomes available.)

Reach the reporter, Dan Johnson, at daniel.johnson@sonomanews.com.

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