Photo: Harpreet Chima (at podium) speaks to the Stockton Unified School District Board of Trustees on Tuesday. (DUANE SANDERS/CONTRIBUTOR)
The Stockton Unified Board of Education publicly reaffirmed its previous approval of a resignation agreement between the district and former Superintendent John Ramirez Jr.
Trustees were accused of originally brokering the deal illegally behind closed doors at a special meeting in June. The agreement was put back on the board’s agenda for its Tuesday meeting this week in what was described as 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,” District counsel Jack Lipton said during the meeting. “But assuming there was, this board agenda item will cure any alleged violation.”
However, discussion of the agenda item became heated as trustees argued over the legality of both the original agreement with Ramirez and the board’s new attempt to become compliant with state law.
Both trustees AngelAnn Flores and Maria Mendez accused, though for different reasons, Lipton of not keeping the board on the right side of California’s Brown Act, a state law requiring government meetings and decision making be open to the public.
Maria Mendez said that Tuesday’s agenda item did not reflect recommendations made by San Joaquin County SuperIntendent of Schools Troy Brown in a letter sent to trustees and District interim Superintendent Traci Miller last month to “cure and correct” what Brown described as “substantial violations of central provisions” of the Brown Act.
The “resignation and transition agreement” between the district and Ramirez 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.”
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 had also served as the district’s interim superintendent for three months prior to his permanent hiring for the position in May 2021.
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 doesn’t specify nor give any examples of what those duties might be or include.
The former superintendent also agreed to release Stockton Unified from any grievances and claims, as well as refrain from disparaging the district.
Trustees approved the agreement during a closed-session special meeting in June, the agenda of which does not mention Ramirez directly. Though a single closed session agenda item is described as “Discipline/Dismissal/Release.”
The 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.
Trustees Flores and Alicia Rico had initially voted against the agreement, while President Mendez, Vice President Ray Zulueta, and trustees Scot McBrian and Zachary Ignacio Avelar voted to approve. Trustee Maria Mendez was reported absent from the vote.
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.
“Brown’s recommendation was to disseminate this documentation into two parts,” Maria Mendez said, noting that the board should have voted on Ramirez’s resignation separately from what has been described by some as a new “employment” contract. “But it was not done for this board agenda.”
In turn, Flores said Lipton as their counsel should have known the board was breaking the law when it initially voted on the agreement and in turn made trustees aware of the fact.
“You should be the one advising us not to take these types of actions that will lead us in violation of the Brown Act,” Flores said. “This is not the first time that we have received your legal advice that has led us into a violation.”
Flores also accused Lipton of lying to the community about whether the board had broken any laws and also questioned what Ramirez was doing to earn the hundreds of thousands of dollars in students’ money he was being paid through the agreement.
“Mr. Ramirez came into an agreement and a final with all of us in closed session and we cannot discuss it,” President Mendez responded.
Lipton and several trustees took issue with Maria Mendez’s and Flores’ characterizations of events, while also pushing back against the county’s assertion that trustees had done anything illegal.
Agenda documents from Tuesday’s meeting say that Ramirez’s “Emeritus Superintendent” status “is reflective of his resignation and not of an employment position, and that the compensation under the Agreement is severance, not salary for services rendered.”
Vice President Zulueta, speaking to Lipton, sought to highlight the “Emeritus” portion of Ramirez’s new title as honorary rather than meaning continued employment with the district.
“The title superintendent emeritus means that he was formerly the superintendent, that it wasn’t intended to be a position,” Lipton said. “That position doesn’t exist at the district. There was a possibility that there could be some transition work or work that he would do at the direction of the board president. But in fact, that hasn’t happened.”
Both President Mendez and Trustee McBrian also noted that previous superintendents who have resigned received similar severance compensation.
“This was traditional. I don’t believe we attempted to do anything nefarious or wrong when we sat down and decided Mr. Ramirez needed to move on,” McBrian said.
At the time of his departure, a district spokesperson said Ramirez was stepping down to “care for his elderly parents.”
However, Ramirez’s compensation is referred to in the agreement as “salary and benefits,” while his new role as emeritus superintendent is described as “employment.” During Tuesday’s meeting, Lipton also referred to the money Ramirez received as a “salary.”
Trustee Avelar also noted that if the board voted to rescind the agreement with Ramirez the district could be on the hook for a lot more than they already were committed to paying. Though Trustee Flores noted that the agreement made room for fraud as a reason to pull out of the deal.
Stockton Unified is currently being investigated for fraud by the state’s Financial Crisis & Management Assistance Team, though there has been no indication that Ramirez himself is under investigation.
Trustees Flores and Maria Mendez ultimately voted against reaffirming the agreement, while President Mendez, Vice President Zulueta and trustees McBrian, Rico and Avelar voted in favor.
However, the vote had to be taken a second time as staff pointed out that the board once again had failed to read out the recommendation beforehand.
The San Joaquin County Office of Education did not immediately respond Wednesday afternoon to requests for comment regarding the board’s decision.
But SJCOE spokes person Zack Johnson said when asked by Stocktonia Tuesday afternoon whether or not the agenda item to reaffirm Ramirez’s resignation and transition agreement could rectify any possible Brown Act violations if approved: “We will review whatever action the board takes.”