More details on abrupt departure of Portola Valley superintendent

District gives a more than $100,000 severance package to Lisa Gonzales

It's been less than two months since Portola Valley Town Manager Nick Pegueros' abrupt "involuntary resignation" was announced. On Friday, Oct. 9, Portola Valley learned it was losing another administrator when the Portola Valley School District announced its superintendent, Lisa Gonzales, was leaving, effective that day.

The resignation of Superintendent Gonzales, who was hired by the two-school Portola Valley School District in August 2013, was announced by the district's board of trustees in a press release sent out shortly after noon Oct. 9.

The press release said Eric Hartwig, former Las Lomitas Elementary School District superintendent and former principal of Menlo-Atherton High School, is expected to begin as interim superintendent of the district on Oct. 15. The school board will consider his contract at its Oct. 14 meeting, the press release said.

What the release did not say, however, is that the district paid Superintendent Gonzales a severance package worth more than $100,000. A copy of the "Mutual Separation Agreement," signed by Ms. Ambler and Ms. Gonzales, and given to the Almanac after it was requested under the California Public Records Act, says that Ms. Gonzales will be paid six months of her base salary, or $91,500, plus the cash equivalent of nine months of health insurance for her family, which the district estimates at $12,000. She will also be paid for accrued vacation, which the district estimates at $8,000.

The public may never know, however, why the district asked her to resign. The agreement says neither side will communicate in any way in which "one of the parties disparages the other or has the effect of damaging in any way the reputation of ...the other party."

It also says that if Ms. Gonzales directs "future employers to the District" only Ms. Ambler will be allowed "to answer any questions relating to Ms. Gonzales' employment" with the district. It contains the wording that can be used: Her departure will be referred to as "a mutual separation for Ms. Gonzales to take on a greater leadership role" with the Association of California School Administrators.

That exact wording was used in the press release sent out by the district. The press release did not note Ms. Gonzales has served as an officer for the group since before she was hired by the district.

The board has been spending a great deal of time recently discussing the superintendent's performance. The board held closed sessions on June 3 and June 11 with the topic of "superintendent's evaluation." On Aug. 19, Sept. 16 and Sept. 23, the board held more closed sessions on the topic of "superintendent performance review."

On Sept. 29, the board met in closed session on the topic of "public employee dismissal, discipline, release," the last meeting noted on the district's website before the Oct. 9 announcement of Superintendent Gonzales' departure. The agenda did not say which employee was the subject of the Sept. 29 meeting.

In the written statement, the board expressed "gratitude to Dr. Gonzales for the many contributions to our school community under her leadership, including successfully guiding the implementation of the strategic plan, recruiting talented administrators and staff, increasing the frequency and effectiveness of communication, and bringing visibility and recognition to the district in very positive ways including the Gold Ribbon Award" for Corte Madera School.

The Portola Valley board had renewed Superintendent Gonzales' contract on Sept. 10, 2014, to run through June 30, 2017. The contract did not include an increase in the $183,000 base salary she was given for her first full year at the district.

The contract says it may be terminated "by written mutual consent," "unilaterally" by the superintendent with 90 days' notice, by the board "for cause" or by the board "without cause" with 45 days written notice. However, the contract specifies severance pay only in the latter case, when the board terminates the contact without cause.

The contract calls for the district to pay severance pay up to the end of the contract term, but not more than nine months of base salary. That means the six months of severance pay is three months less than the maximum called for in the contract.

When contacted on Oct. 9, Ms. Gonzales said she is going to become president-elect of the Association of California School Administrators next week. She said she has "served for four years as the point person for legislative work at the state and federal level" for the organization.

"As I move into the president-elect role next week, the opportunity to be the advocate that our California students most need is one I couldn't pass up," she said.

Mr. Hartwig was an English teacher in middle and high schools before becoming assistant principal at Capuchino High School, and then principal at Menlo-Atherton, a job he held for nine years. He then served for four years as director of curriculum and instruction for the Sequoia Union High School District before becoming superintendent of the Las Lomitas district, where he worked for five years before retiring.

The formal recruitment of a permanent superintendent to take over at the beginning of the 2016-17 school year will begin in January, according to the press release.

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34 people like this
Posted by Tweet This
a resident of Portola Valley: other
on Oct 12, 2015 at 10:10 am

Here's an interesting puzzle:

What does (5 meetings on performance evaluation) + (1 meeting on dismissal) +
(an abrupt resignation in the middle of first semester) + (prepared separation statements without candid commentary) + (an already hired interim replacement) + (6 month severance package) = ?

24 people like this
Posted by School District Reform
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Oct 12, 2015 at 12:46 pm

Perhaps the bigger question is why are there no less than 4 grammar school district in Menlo Park proper covering a total of 9 schools? Each district has their own $175,000++ superintendent with a complete support staff. Combine the 4 districts into one and reduce the overhead by 75% thus saving the taxpayers money and eliminating the need for a bond measure every year. There is plenty of money, just manage the money available more efficiently.

21 people like this
Posted by stan
a resident of Portola Valley: Los Trancos Woods/Vista Verde
on Oct 12, 2015 at 12:47 pm

Reply to "Tweet this"

It means I think that we need an emoji for "COVERUP".

1 person likes this
Posted by WP
a resident of Woodside: Woodside Heights
on Oct 12, 2015 at 1:48 pm

As far as school district reform, there's a give and take between larger districts which save administrative overhead and smaller ones that are more responsive to the local community. Portola Valley seems to have had a lot of problems. Las Lomitas seems to be better managed and I don't think there are many LL parents clamouring to join forces with Menlo Park. As a LL parent with a college freshman, we had a fews ups and downs but generally have been highly satisfied with the education our kids have gotten in the public schools. We have several little towns in our area where the home prices are high enough that the schools are functionally semi-private. Good luck to PV, Eric Hartwig did a great job in his years as our superintendent.

7 people like this
Posted by Follow the money
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Oct 12, 2015 at 2:05 pm

After Serrano-Priest in the 1970s, school funding across districts was supposed to be equalized. In reality, some districts had grandfathered benefits that they did not have to give up. You will not see Menlo Park and Las Lomitas (the most obvious merger) joining to create a six-school district because Las Lomitas has many more grandfathered perks, including higher salaries for staff/teachers, and they are not about to relinquish those.

This is more about politics and special interests than about efficiency.

7 people like this
Posted by CC
a resident of La Entrada School
on Oct 12, 2015 at 3:47 pm

Eric Hartwig is FABULOUS!! I so wish he hadn't retired from LLESD. Good wishes, Eric, get it all sorted out for them. 😘

17 people like this
Posted by AGAIN??
a resident of Portola Valley: Westridge
on Oct 12, 2015 at 8:06 pm

What is going on in our PV school district administration? Why aren't we being informed? I cannot tell you how glad I am that our child is no longer in the school system, in spite of the excellence of the teachers and staff. We just cannot seem to keep Superintendents or Assistant Superintendents. Or, at least, not without them mysteriously resigning, all of a sudden. Will some kind of scandal come out about this? Sigh.

28 people like this
Posted by PV Parent
a resident of Portola Valley: Westridge
on Oct 12, 2015 at 8:12 pm

I'd like to ask that all contracts for administrators for both the Portola Valley School District and the Town of Portola Valley be negotiated by someone other than whoever is doing it now. My God, in an area with so many experienced business leaders and entrepreneurs, we seem to end up paying out enormous sums of money to administrators who summarily quit their jobs and take other jobs. Why the hell should Lisa get paid and get full family insurance when she is already employed elsewhere? What kind of negotiator do we have on our side? WTF.

Obviously, PV has become known as the place to go when you want to make a ton of money for doing nothing, then grab your golden parachute and saunter off into the sunset.

No, I will NOT be contributing to yet another PVSD annual campaign. You've wasted enough of our money.

27 people like this
Posted by Observer
a resident of Portola Valley: other
on Oct 12, 2015 at 10:07 pm

Does the PVSD Board really have the authority to give away public funds in such extraordinary amounts without an adequate explanation to its electorate?

Could the PVSD Board please provide a full explanation to our community? Now?

If not, we need to tie future community financial support of PVSD to PVSD accountability and open, public communication.

The time has come.

24 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Portola Valley: other
on Oct 13, 2015 at 5:56 am

This is called The Portola Valley Way.

Anne Campbell didn't stay through her contract. Tim Hanretty didn't stay through his contract (thankfully). Carole Piraino didn't stay through her contract and resigned abruptly and got paid to leave. Lisa Gonzales didn't stay through her contract and got paid to leave. Great teachers like Ms. Brown, Ms. Joi, and Mr. Mead get pushed out. And the board doesn't have to answer any questions or be held responsible for any of it. This is called the Portola Valley Way.

It is very sad to admit but the district has lots its way.

19 people like this
Posted by PVSD Employee
a resident of Portola Valley: Central Portola Valley
on Oct 13, 2015 at 9:23 am

I've worked for PVSD for many years. Yes, things are not perfect, but I can tell you that the people who work here do their absolute best for these wonderful kids and families.

I can certainly understand why people would like to have more information about why Dr. Gonzales left, but has anyone stopped to think that the Board needs to limit their communication to avoid possible liability to do the district? If you read between the lines, I am sure you can figure it out. I'm an sorry it has to be this way.

It's very frustrating for me to read what people who have never worked in education say are the answers. It's not simple. Please, if you're going to write something inflammable, please make sure to have your facts correct. Anne Campbell did not receive a pay-out. Tim Hanretty did not receive a pay-out. Carol Piraino did not receive a pay-out. For such an intelligent, educated community, I'm amazed at all the inaccuracies I see written here.

10 people like this
Posted by Barbara Wood
Almanac staff writer
on Oct 13, 2015 at 9:54 am

Barbara Wood is a registered user.

A link to the Mutual Separation Agreement has been posted in the story. The district provided us this document after we made a public records request. They were obligated to provide the document because it provides details about spending public money.

8 people like this
Posted by Oreil
a resident of Portola Valley: Los Trancos Woods/Vista Verde
on Oct 13, 2015 at 11:44 am

I smell a rat. Why are we paying out such huge amounts without knowing what is going on? Where is the transparency? I worked for years for a school district before retirement, it was never this hush-hush and such ridiculous amounts of money paid out! Where is the accountability?

2 people like this
Posted by CC
a resident of La Entrada School
on Oct 13, 2015 at 1:15 pm

TEACHERS UNIONS. Or in this case, administrators unions - that's why it's secretive and expensive. When LE got rid of their recent previous principal, who had been a disaster in Palo Alto, he was able to move up to an even higher paid job in another district. I expect they regret it.

Union contracts make it so difficult to fire people that it's hard to find out why someone left their last position -- you squeeze them out any way you can and pray they get another job that makes it uninteresting for them to sue your district on any pretext.

LLESD had a joke of a superintendent for less that a year because parents wanted an open interview process. It turns out that very few qualified administrators want their districts to find out they are interviewing elsewhere, so no one good applied. Thankfully Eric Hartwig came in at the end of that disaster when the district went back to closed interviews.

There's often a lot of parent complaints or gossip in a district where someone isn't a right fit. I'd hate to see the district _pay_ someone to do a good thorough dig through social media and local papers like the Almanac, but I hope someone in the board or selection committee will be diligent about it. Get sleuthing when you're already to make an offer to make sure you aren't hiring some other district's problem. Perhaps reach out to LLESD board members to find out what they've learned.

10 people like this
Posted by NOT a PVSD employee
a resident of Portola Valley: Portola Valley Ranch
on Oct 13, 2015 at 1:25 pm

To PVSD employee: Absolutely ridiculous. Gonzales clearly had an attorney. A better way than firing without cause (and thus, the payout) would have been to find ways in which Gonzales wasn't performing appropriately, and fire her for cause. This, however, takes scrutinizing work---something nobody is willing to put in in a situation like this. Much easier just to give away the parents' money, since there doesn't have to be any kind of explanation.

I think it's time to review the way the Sequoia Union School District is run, as well as the PVSD. At least two excellent former PVSD members left the board after dealing with the aftermath of the Hanretty [word removed]. Perhaps that was a clue right there.

12 people like this
Posted by A Parent
a resident of another community
on Oct 13, 2015 at 5:02 pm

To CC:

Your post is an excellent example of someone posting who has no clue what they are talking about. Superintendents are not part of any bargaining unit. To put it in very clear and simple terms, they are not in any union.

Neither are principals.

3 people like this
Posted by Shocked
a resident of another community
on Oct 13, 2015 at 5:20 pm

This is a huge loss for Portola Valley.

9 people like this
Posted by Get Real
a resident of another community
on Oct 13, 2015 at 5:28 pm

Where is the dislike button? The lack of outcry from the community over the past few days since the announcement of the resignation in combination with the details emerging, illustrate the only true "loss" to Portola Valley. The loss in this instance is how much money the district had to pay to shed this contract.

14 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Portola Valley: Westridge
on Oct 13, 2015 at 6:09 pm

Gonzales was not a "good fit" in Palo Alto and for the same reason was not a "good fit" with our district. Why do you think all of those wonderful teachers left?

10 people like this
Posted by Observer
a resident of Portola Valley: other
on Oct 14, 2015 at 5:28 pm

Going forward, it seems high time for a provision along the following lines to be included in all higher level public employment contracts in Portola Valley:


It seems unlikely that a competent, qualified candidate would take issue with this provision, if fully disclosed/included at the outset. And if severance is merited, so be it, but it is not appropriate to expend our public funds under a cloak of secrecy without appropriate substantiation and justification.

Would a representative of PVSD or Town of PV be willing to express support for this provision?

Surely, some of them are (or should be) reading these posts.

18 people like this
Posted by PV Resident
a resident of Portola Valley: Westridge
on Oct 14, 2015 at 6:24 pm

Oh my goodness. Ignorance reigns here. There are well-established best practices in labor proceedings, confidentiality, contract law and separation-of-employment. Everything in the article is consistent with these. It's fun to be shrill and tut-tut about how clever WE are and what bozos THEY are but there's nothing extraordinary here.

The amounts are not extraordinary. Teachers leaving is not extraordinary. The length-of-employment is not extraordinary. The process is not extraordinary. The severance agreement is not extraordinary. The confidentiality is not extraordinary. And the strident tut-tutting is the most ordinary part of this whole process. When a superintendent leaves a district at the board's request, this is what it looks like.

12 people like this
Posted by Observer
a resident of Portola Valley: other
on Oct 14, 2015 at 7:07 pm

@PV Resident:

Some actual facts, concrete examples, legal authority, if you please. Otherwise, yes indeed. Ignorance reigns.

8 people like this
Posted by Observer
a resident of Portola Valley: other
on Oct 14, 2015 at 9:34 pm

@PV Resident:

Please clarify/explain your statement:

"When a superintendent leaves a district at the board's request, this is what it looks like."

Do you have facts to support your assertion that the superintendent left at PVSD request? This is a key question to which the PVSD has provided no answer to the public or its electorate. Yet you seem to know?

What information can you share to show us that "this is what it looks like" in similar situations?

What similar situations? Is there another secret $90K+/- severance package for a school superintendent who departed at his/her board's request that you can point to for comparison purposes/support of your position?

9 people like this
Posted by new participant
a resident of Portola Valley: Portola Valley Ranch
on Oct 15, 2015 at 12:48 am

Lisa Gonzales is neither a victim nor a hero. The school board acted professionally and appropriately. Read the released agreement between the board and Ms. Gonzales. That type of agreement in no way implies that she was leaving for another job opportunity. She was forced out. [Part removed.]

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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