Photo: Stockton Unified Board President Cecilia Mendez and trustees Ray Zulueta Jr. and Scot McBrian at a recent town hall meeting. (DUANE SANDERS/CONTRIBUTOR)
In a monumental blunder — or a shady deal — Stockton Unified trustees illegally pressured Superintendent John Ramirez Jr. to resign, officials say. Trustees must rescind both his resignation and lucrative new job contract.
The board acted in closed session, a flagrant violation of the Brown Act, a California law prohibiting secret government decisions, Troy A. Brown, San Joaquin County’s superintendent of schools, wrote to the board in an Aug. 31 letter.
“The Stockton Unified School District Governing Board violated important public rights when it took this illegal action on June 9, 2022,” Brown wrote.
Minutes of the June 9 “special closed session” show trustees accepted Ramirez’s resignation behind closed doors, reassigned him to a nebulous year-long job at the same wage and almost same benefits, and emerged only to announce their decision before adjourning.
The vote was 4/2/1 in favor with yes votes from Board Chair Cecilia Mendez, trustees Ray Zulueta, Scott McBrian, and Zachary Ignacio Avelar, no votes from AngelAnn Flores and Alicia Rico, and Trustee Maria Mendez absent.
This gross negligence — if it is indeed a mistake and not deliberate — is the latest stain on Stockton Unified’s embattled Board of Trustees. The 7-person board, as well as certain senior district executives, are under investigation by federal, state, and local agencies.
It cements Stockton Unified as the nucleus of incompetence and possibly corruption in San Joaquin County. Activists have called on most trustees to immediately resign.
Though Ramirez’s resignation and reassignment must be rescinded, he will not retake the helm of Stockton Unified. A Brown Act loophole gives violators 30 days to fix their violation. This is what County Superintendent Brown’s “cure and correct” letter demands.
“The County Superintendent of Schools plays an important role in the oversight of school districts, and this is a duty that I take very seriously,” Brown said in a statement. “State law is … there to ensure transparency and protect the rights of the people of California. The public’s business must be conducted openly.”
Trustees have until Oct. 30 to put Ramirez’s firing and reassignment on a board meeting agenda for public discussion.
The public may not like what it sees.
In the “Resignation and Transition Agreement” finalized in secret, the board declared Ramirez “Superintendent Emeritus” through June 30, 2023, giving him his old wages and benefits for a year, minus vacation days and travel stipend.
In exchange for agreeing to release Stockton Unified from any grievances and claims—and, of course, the inevitable non-disparagement agreement buying Ramirez’s silence—Ramirez gets $285,000.
That is more than the $245,000 the county Superintendent of Schools earns for overseeing the entire county education system. Almost as much as the $296,000 the chancellor of the California Community College system makes for overseeing 116 colleges.
Ramirez’s vague job: “reporting directly to the Board, providing transition assistance to SUSD, with duties to be assigned by the Board President.”
Reporting directly to the board, with no more job description than “transition assistance,” and no public accountability, is another secretive and illegal aspect of the deal.
“When they entered into the Ramirez contract … all of it has to be agendized and subject to public comment,” said San Joaquin County District Attorney Tori Verber Salazar. “The vote has to be public.”
Few if any beside the board president even know what Ramirez does to earn his sweet compensation.
“He is not on any Stockton Unified campus or building,” said district spokesperson Melinda Meza.
Ramirez did not return a late call for comment. Neither did board Chair Cecilia Mendez.
Trustee AngelAnn Flores explained her no vote: “Because I don’t believe we should pay a man $300,000 a year for destroying our district while he sits at home, and our district is left to pick up the pieces, leaving our students to carry the weight.”
The action calls into question the competence and integrity of board officials. According to district records, they were given Brown Act training in an October 12, 2021, study session.
It is reasonable to assume they knew what they were doing.
Another question involves district General Counsel Jack Lipton. Lipton’s job is to advise trustees of their Brown Act obligations. He either failed to do so or they ignored him.
Lipton had a prior relationship with Ramirez. He worked for a law firm that contracted with the Alisal Union School District of Salinas when Ramirez was superintendent there.
It appears Lipton had a conflict of interest. If so, he should have recused himself. Any outside counsel would have immediately apprised trustees of Brown Act requirements.
Now it is not clear to outsiders if Lipton was representing trustees or Ramirez. Or whether anyone was representing taxpayers, or Stockton Unified’s approximately 37,600 students.
In a brief statement, Lipton denied any conflict of interest. Asked whether he warned trustees they broke the law, he replied, “My communications are protected from disclosure by attorney-client privilege.”
Another possible outcome—an out for the board—is to decline to rehire Ramirez because of his Aug. 25 drunk driving arrest. Police say Ramirez blew a very drunk .225%.
To put this fishy deal in context, remember that Stockton Unified is being investigated by the FBI, the San Joaquin County District Attorney’s Office, the California State Employees Association, and the state’s Financial Crisis & Management Assistance Team (FCMAT), not to mention the county grand jury, which has issued two withering reports decrying how inept or dirty leaders are running the district into the ground. The head of FCMAT has stated publicly he expects to find fraud.
Given the clouds over Stockton Unified, a reasonable observer would wonder whether the trustees’ deal with Ramirez was a golden parachute or hush money.
And, if the latter, what is being hushed up? If trustees dislike such suspicion, they have no one to blame but themselves for making an illegal, back-room deal.
Michael Fitzgerald’s column regularly runs on Wednesdays. Phone (209) 687-9585. On Twitter and Instagram as Stocktonopolis. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.