Stockton Unified has terminated its controversial employment contract— or resignation agreement, depending on whom you ask — with its former district superintendent, John Ramirez Jr.
The SUSD Board of Education voted in closed session this week “to terminate the employment of superintendent emeritus,” the title given to Ramirez when he resigned last June, “effective as soon as notice can be provided.”
Interim Superintendent Traci Miller and board trustees were put on notice by the San Joaquin County Office of Education in August for likely violating California’s public-meeting law in approving a new employment contract for Ramirez when he resigned. Stockton Unified officials at the time disputed the county’s characterization of the district’s contract with Ramirez, describing it as simply a resignation agreement with an honorary title and severance package.
However, per the county’s instructions, the board put the item back on its agenda in September and reapproved the agreement during a public meeting session.
Ramirez’s termination comes on the heels of a changing of the guard at Stockton Unified following the November Election that saw Trustee AngelAnn Flores, who often served as the lone dissenting vote in many of the board’s more controversial decisions, taking over board leadership as the new president in December.
Announcement of the closed-session decision to terminate Ramirez was given by Vice President Kennetha Stevens at the board’s Tuesday meeting without fanfare or discussion.
The item, described on the meeting’s agenda only as a “Public Employee Discipline/Dismissal/Release,” was 4-2, with Flores, Stevens and trustees Donald Donaire and Sofia Colón voting in the affirmative and trustees Cecilia Mendez and Alicia Rico against. Trustee Ray Zulueta abstained from the vote.
Zulueta, Mendez and Rico voted to reaffirm Ramirez’s resignation agreement last fall, with Flores voting against the action. Stevens, Donaire and Colón were not on the board at the time.
Attempts to contact Ramirez for this story were unsuccessful as of publication.
County and district disagreed on legality of contract
Ramirez resigned his post in June a little more than a year into his three-year contract after being officially hired as Stockton Unified School District superintendent. He also had served as the district’s interim superintendent for three months prior to his permanent hiring for the position in May 2021.
At the time of his departure, a district spokesperson said Ramirez was stepping down to “care for his elderly parents.”
An agreement between the district and Ramirez at the time both accepted Ramirez’s resignation while also declaring him “Superintendent Emeritus” for a period of one year, starting July 1 and ending June 30, 2023. Ramirez was also guaranteed “the same salary and benefits that he received as Superintendent, except without a travel stipend and without vacation days.”
As superintendent emeritus, the agreement says Ramirez would report “directly to the Board, providing transition assistance to SUSD, with duties to be assigned by the Board President.” The agreement didn’t specify nor give any examples of what those duties might be or include.
Ramirez also agreed to release Stockton Unified from any grievances and claims, as well as refrain from disparaging the district.
However, approving the agreement behind closed doors put the governing board in hot water.
Troy Brown, San Joaquin County Superintendent of Schools, sent a letter in August to trustees and interim Superintendent Traci Miller informing the district that the agreement’s approval was done illegally, and its board needed to “cure and correct” any violations.
Trustees allegedly violated California’s Brown Act, a state law requiring government meetings and decision-making be open to the public, when it approved Ramirez’s “resignation and transition agreement” during closed session at its special meeting June 9.
“To correct this, the Governing Board must rescind the action taken at its … special meeting, and if they so choose, properly take the intended action at a regular board meeting,” Brown had said in a statement to Stocktonia at the time.
State law stipulates that a legislative body cannot call a special meeting regarding “salaries, salary schedule, or compensation in the form of fringe benefits” for any “local agency executive” — such as a public school district superintendent — and that the public must be given a summary of any recommendations regarding pay and benefits at an open meeting before final action or approval can take place.
The agenda for the closed-session special meeting where Ramirez’s contract was originally approved does not mention Ramirez directly. Though a single, closed session agenda item is described as “Discipline/Dismissal/Release.”
A video recording of the meeting lasted less than four minutes, with just 21 seconds at the end of the meeting being dedicated to announcing that the board had accepted Ramirez’s resignation in closed session. No other information on the terms of the agreement were provided, and the meeting was closed a few seconds later.
Flores and Rico had initially voted against the agreement, while then-President Mendez, then-Vice President Ray Zulueta, and former trustees Scot McBrian and Zachary Ignacio Avelar voted to approve. Former Trustee Maria Mendez was reported absent from the vote.
Maria Mendez, McBrian and Avelar have since been replaced following the November Election by Turstee Donaire, Clerk Sofia Colón and Vice President Stevens.
“The Stockton Unified School District Governing Board violated important public rights when it took this illegal action,” Brown wrote in his letter to the district.
Though Stockton Unified at the time disagreed that what the agreement originally approved by the board was not a new employment contract, the board ultimately put the contract back on its agenda for reapproval in September in an attempt to correct any perceived wrongdoing that may or may not have happened the first time around.
“The district is not acknowledging that there was a violation,” former district counsel Jack Lipton said during the meeting. “But assuming there was, this board agenda item will cure any alleged violation.”
Agenda documents for the meeting also stated that Ramirez’s “Emeritus Superintendent” status was “reflective of his resignation and not of an employment position, and that the compensation under the Agreement is severance, not salary for services rendered.”
In addition, district spokesperson Melinda Meza told Stocktonia at the time that Ramirez was “not on any Stockton Unified campus or building.”
However, the “resignation and transition agreement” approved by trustees in June seems to indicate that Ramirez was still considered a Stockton Unified employee. For example, the agreement refers to Ramirez’s employment as “Superintendent Emeritus” and says that in this new position, he would be “providing transition assistance to SUSD, with duties to be assigned by the Board President.”
The way trustees voted to “terminate” Ramirez’s “employment” Tuesday also indicates the agreement was indeed an employee contract.
Stockton Unified officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding whether the district had changed its stance on if the agreement had actually been an employment contract, as well as how much Ramirez had already been paid as superintendent emeritus.
Great start! Kudos to trustee Flores and the newly appointed board members. That said, Ramirez is not the only who brokered a dirty deal. This is but only one Illegal agreement reached behind closed doors that needs to be investigated!
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