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Superintendent abruptly leaves Sonoma Valley Unified School District after signing ‘separation agreement’

Assistant Superintendent Elizabeth Kaufman was appointed acting superintendent.|

Adrian Palazuelos’ term as superintendent of Sonoma Valley Unified School District ended abruptly Friday after he struck a “separation agreement.” He leaves the district with six months of pay and benefits.

“The board has reached a separation agreement with Dr. Palazuelos,” said Trustee Anne Ching after board members met Nov. 18 in closed session during a special meeting.

She said Deputy Superintendent Elizabeth Kaufman would serve as acting superintendent.

Board members did not provide additional information and there was no opportunity for public comment afterward at the meeting regarding the decision.

Trustee John Kelly told the Index-Tribune on Monday that the board voted 3-2 to approve the separation agreement, with Ching and outgoing trustees Melanie Blake and Cathy Coleman voting in favor, while he and Troy Knox opposed the deal.

“The presence of a payout to Adrian Palazuelos was the primary reason I voted against the contract,” Kelly said in an email. “I also voted against the contract because it includes a nondisparagement agreement clause, which I think limits the public’s ability to learn about Adrian Palazuelos’ behavior and my ability to comment on the same.”

Kelly said that under the agreement, Palazuelos will receive six months of his salary - totaling $115,000 - plus benefits. No other details of the agreement were disclosed, and no other trustees responded to the Index-Tribune by deadline on Monday afternoon.

“I continue to disagree with the three trustees that voted in favor of entering the agreement, but consistent with our norms, I support the decision now that it has been made,” Kelly said.

Kelly’s understanding is that Palazuelos requested to “separate” from the district, that he retained a private attorney to negotiate on his behalf and that the final agreement was drafted by an attorney for the district.

After the regular board meeting on Nov. 15, the trustees designated Ching to negotiate with Palazuelos and his attorney, with the assistance of School and College Legal Services.

Kelly voiced concern about Palazuelos leaving at this time.

“The exit of a superintendent in the middle of the school year is difficult for a district with so many new administrators (around a dozen) who have been in their roles for a short time,” he said. “Leadership from the superintendent’s office is critical for those administrators, and we are fortunate that Dr. Elizabeth Kaufman is willing to step into the breach.”

This marks the second time in recent years that Palazuelos has signed a separation agreement with a school district. At his last role as superintendent of Fillmore Unified School District in Ventura County, he made an “abrupt and surprising” exit, according to the Ventura County Star, in the middle of the school year in March 2021.

He began his tenure at Sonoma Valley in June 2021, when he signed a three-year contract with a salary of $230,000 per year, in addition to $10,000 for relocation costs, plus health, dental and vision benefits, and a monthly $400 travel budget.

It also marks the second time in two years Sonoma Valley Unified has lost its top administrator midyear. Socorro Shiels was fired in November 2020, a politically motivated move orchestrated by Kelly, according to a district-funded report.

During public comment at Friday’s meeting, several people expressed frustration with the circumstances surrounding Palazuelos’ absence. The comments amplified ongoing criticism that the superintendent has not attended district meetings, been present in the office or responsive to the public for much of the month.

After weeks of speculation by parents and teachers, Coleman would only say he was “out on leave” at Tuesday’s regular school board meeting. In a Thursday email, Kaufman said Palazuelos was taking an extended medical leave.

“I and other parents who I talk to are concerned about the leadership in the district,” said Daniela Bravo during the public comment period at the beginning of Friday’s special meeting. “A huge part of it is communication, but there are transparency issues, as well. And I’m concerned with the leadership of the superintendent. We’re paying out money for someone who is not here.”

Emily Robledo, another parent, said, “I would like to use the board to focus on what is right for our children,” adding the district’s problems are causing concern. “I think we should send Dr. Palazuelos on his way and really focus on what’s right for our children. Let’s move on. It’s time to move on.”

Former board member Helen Marsh added, “The board today is dealing with an employee (Palazuelos) who has privacy rights, but it needs to do a better job of communicating what is happening without invading his privacy.”

Kelly said that the board will need to consider what actions it needs to take to hire a new superintendent at its next regular board meeting, on Tuesday, Dec. 13, when Catarina Landry and the winner of the Area 2 election are seated. Joe Lemas leads with 40.1%, while challenger Celeste Winders trailed by 38 votes at 37.6% on Monday evening.

“The district will now have to commence the all-too-familiar process of selecting a new superintendent to lead the district, and at the same time we must address the long-term waste of resources that has consistently meant our teachers and staff have been underpaid relative to what they can and could reasonably expect,” he said. “We are also addressing the medium-to-long term consequences of learning loss in the pandemic, which requires continued remediation for our students. These are daunting challenges.”

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

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