Trustee alleges college district conspired towards particular schooling mother and father
At an expensive San Diego steakhouse in early December, the Sonoma Valley Unified School District Board of Trustees met with Superintendent Dr. Adrian Palazuelos for dinner. What happened next depends on who you ask.
According to trustee John Kelly, Palazuelos and board chair Melanie Blake laid out a plan to blame parents of special education teachers for problems in the embattled district, with the ultimate goal of dissolving the parent-led Special Education Advisory Council (SEAC).
“It was overwhelming to see the superintendent bring it up,” Kelly said.
Palazuelos countered Kelly’s statement, calling it “troubling on several levels.”
He added, “This claim is simply false.”
Upon learning of Kelly’s allegations, the special education parents were stunned, citing years of trouble with the district and its revolving door of special education administrators.
“How do you build trust after that?” asked Mindy Luby, parent of three with special needs and co-founder of SEAC. “The chance of truth and trust is decimated.”
The district has struggled for years to offer special education, which led to an official school board apology after a scathing report from the state in 2019. SEAC was designed to bridge the broken trust between parents and district administrators.
On Monday, Kelly filed a complaint with the Sonoma County Grand Jury and District Attorney’s Office alleging violations of the Brown Act, the “sunshine” statute that regulates and safeguards public government meetings. The school officials were in San Diego to attend the California School Board Association conference. While board members are permitted to socialize when interacting as a quorum, they may not discuss official school district business without calling a public meeting, along with other Brown Act requirements.
“Superintendent Palazuelos should be placed on administrative leave immediately,” Kelly wrote in a statement to the Index-Tribune. “The district needs to make a clear statement: no administrator is above the law, and the community needs to know what their government has done and what is being done to correct these apparent errors.”
While Palazuelos firmly denied the claims, he questioned why Kelly hadn’t said anything earlier. “If the allegation were indeed valid, the issue should have been raised directly at dinner, alternatively the allegation could have been made more formally and specifically addressed and resolved,” he wrote in an email.
Kelly, an attorney and senior board member, said he was “stunned” by the events that unfolded at dinner on December 2. According to Kelly, Palazuelos leaned forward to tell the board that they would receive an email from District Attorney Matthew Tamel about district employees planning to file a hostile employment grievance against SEAC.
“The conversation went back and forth, with Superintendent Palazuelos characterizing the district as having a reputation for weakness in the special education community and that the complaint regarding SEAC members would address that weakness,” Kelly wrote. “Palazuelos seemed to think that the complaint about SEAC members would shift the focus to blaming SEAC as the source of the district’s mismanagement of special education.”
Kelly added, “Chairman Blake took up the cloak of the conversation and stated that SEAC must be ended and that there should be no replacement.”
Chief Executives Blake, Cathy Coleman and Troy Knox did not respond to multiple emails seeking comment on this story. Reached by phone, trustee Anne Ching said: “I don’t remember. That’s really all I have to say to you.”
In a Jan. 10 interview with the Index-Tribune, Palazuelos confirmed that his staff had experienced a hostile work environment when dealing with SEAC, but did not elaborate on those allegations.
The former SEAC leaders, who resigned en masse in January because the district denounced a lack of support, said they were not aware of any such grievances from their group.
“We have received no complaint,” Celeste Winders, co-founder of SEAC, said of Palazuelos’ allegation. Special education parents say they have been looked down on for years and have often been blamed for financial woes in the cash-strapped district because their children consume more resources than other students. Some require access to schools with special education for dyslexia or autism and are placed in non-public schools at the district’s expense.
“None of us want our children to go to school outside of their community. It’s not our first choice, it’s literally our last choice. But it’s our best choice,” said Luby. “Usually (parents) look for alternatives because the county has let our kids down so badly.”
Kelly said no matter what tensions there may be, the district is a government agency, “it should never be personal.”
He added, “These are the most needy and deserving students.”
Characterizing the allegations as “completely false”, Palazuelos wrote: “If a trustee makes a knowingly false allegation against another trustee, such as
In rare cases, board members violating the Brown Act can be prosecuted and fined up to $1,000. According to prosecutors, all violations are investigated like any other crime.
Special education parents are concerned after their well-documented run-ins with district administrators while fighting for students’ civil rights.
“If you carry out an (educational) assignment, you do the minimum required by law. At SEAC, compliance was our goal,” said Winders. “So you want to shut down a group of parents asking you to do the essentials? I think every board member involved in this should step down and resign.”