Dr. Michelle Rodriguez is officially the new Superintendent of the Stockton Unified School District, and she plans on sticking around for a while.
The veteran educator was voted in by the board of trustees at Tuesday’s regular meeting at SUSD’s Coleman Building. She promised to bring stability to a school district that has not had much durability in its top position over the past three decades.
Rodriguez comes to SUSD after seven years as the superintendent at Pajaro Valley Unified School District in Watsonville. As she spoke to teachers, students and parents before the vote on Tuesday, one of the most frequently asked questions was: “How long will you stay?”
Rodriguez said she understood the inquiry and knew all about SUSD’s history. She will be the eighth permanent or interim superintendent since 2014.
“I told (the SUSD search committee) seven or eight years,” Rodriquez said. “I plan to retire here. I plan to stay here and affect change.”
Rodriguez, 52, was approved as the new superintendent in a 4-2-1 vote by the board. President AngelAnn Flores, Vice President Kennetha Stevens, Clerk Sofia Colón and board member Donald Donaire voted in favor of Rodriguez. Cecilia Mendez and Ray Zulueta voted against her candidacy, while Alicia Ricos abstained.
Immediately after being welcomed to the district, Rodriguez made a statement in English and Spanish.
“Something I’m committed to is elevating the voices of students, making sure that we are collaborating with all parents, students, staff and community members,” Rodriguez said. “When it comes down to it, we all want the same thing: we want Stockton (Unified) to be the first choice and the best choice for our students.”
Rodriguez, who will begin her term of office July 1, agreed to a three-year contract at $295,000 per year to manage the district’s 36,000 students. Before applying for the superintendent’s position, she extensively researched SUSD, which is currently experiencing a series of serious issues. The district has been rocked by two critical grand jury reports, one Brown Act violation and a devastating Financial Crisis & Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) report that cited illegalities and corruption inside the SUSD administration and its board at the time.
Rodriguez stated this won’t be the first time she inherited a troubled district, saying she was called before a Santa Cruz County grand jury during her third week in charge at PVUSD. Plus, she faced a $21 million deficit.
“The situation is elevated here with some of the things going on in Stockton. I know there will be challenges, but I believe my skill set leads toward these challenges,” Rodriguez said. “I appreciate being able to advocate, and sometimes doing the right work for children is not easy. I think I have the determination and dedication to do what is needed.”
Rodriguez has served as an educator for 31 years, and PVUSD Board President Jennifer Holm praised Rodriguez in a statement given to the Santa Cruz Sentinel.
“In the nearly seven years of Dr. Rodriguez’s student-centered leadership, the PVUSD community saw tremendous growth in critical programs,” Holm wrote. “She leaves the district stronger than she found it, and we wish her all the best in her next chapter.”
Her tenure in Watsonville was not always easy, though. The PVUSD school board terminated Rodriguez during a closed session meeting in 2021 for reasons that were never publicly explained. After receiving an outcry of support from the community, the board reinstated her a few days later.
“Over a two-day span 700 people spoke on my behalf, and there was also a petition signed by 2,500 people,” Rodriguez said. “It was a combination of parents, staff, community members and elected officials, so for me it was almost a validation of the work that I had done there.”
Rodriguez said she plans to live in Stockton, and she made a good impression with much of the audience at Tuesday’s board meeting, including SUSD teacher Ellena Gibbons.
“I’m hopeful,” Gibbons said. “I asked her ‘are you staying?’ and she said she always stays in a position for seven years or more. I think this is a step in the right direction, and my impression is that she was sincere in her answers.”
Rodriguez succeeds Dr. Traci Miller, who has served as the district’s interim superintendent since July 2022. During her remarks on Tuesday, Miller welcomed Rodriguez and pledged to help with the transition in any way possible.