“It’s a typo,” Arturo Sanchez-Macias, assistant superintendent for San Ysidro School District says.
The “it” to which Sanchez-Macias refers is the date, January 15, 2016, on a settlement agreement between the district and a San Ysidro School District employee who was fired after revealing that newly hired district superintendent Julio Fonseca had not informed boardmembers that he was dating a job applicant.
The decision to pay $113,433 to employee Jose Enrique Gonzalez who had worked for the district for a two-month span has spiraled into yet another controversy for the scandal-plagued school district. The previous controversy also involved the district’s boss, former superintendent Manuel Paul, who later admitted to accepting kickbacks from local contractors.
Sitting behind a cluttered L-shaped desk, Sanchez-Macias peers through designer eyeglasses, which makes him appear more eccentric watchmaker than public school administrator. He dismisses any suggestion of a conspiracy or wrongdoing by the district, in either the employee’s firing or the settlement agreement.
“The board voted to approve the settlement agreement,” he explains. “People are free to question or disagree with any of their votes, but that doesn’t change the fact that they have that authority to enter into such an agreement,” says Sanchez-Macias in a hushed, calculated tone during a June 30 interview from inside district headquarters on Otay Mesa Road.
Conflicting (love) interests
In December 2015, boardmembers hired Alexis Rodriguez to become coordinator of after-school education and safety programs as recommended by superintendent Fonseca. Just days before the board meeting, during a night out in La Jolla, Gonzalez, who was hired to be coordinator of program development and school services in November 2015, spotted Fonseca and Rodriguez on a date.
After becoming aware of Rodriguez’s job and — according to court documents — as rumors swirled inside the office, Gonzalez asked a boardmember if they were aware that Fonseca and Rodriguez were in a relationship before they chose to hire her. They were not, the boardmember said.
Gonzalez’s inquistiveness may not have set well with the board. On January 19, 2016, he was fired from his job while still serving within his 90-day probationary time with the district. In a settlement agreement, the one Sanchez-Macias claims was misdated, Gonzalez agreed to accept one year’s salary, including medical and dental benefits, of $113,433 in exchange for his termination and waiving any rights to future claims.
“This separation agreement,” reads the January 15, 2016, document obtained by the Reader, “extends to all claims of every nature and kind, known or unknown, suspected or unsuspected…” and “unconditionally releases and forever discharges… board members, officers, attorneys, predecessors, successors, employees, and agents, from any and all charges, complaints, claims….”
Furthermore, Gonzalez and the district agreed to keep the settlement agreement “strictly confidential.”
But there was nothing confidential about the agreement. And, public documents reveal the lengths the district went to to keep the payment quiet.
Conflicting hiring and firing practices
Regardless of when the settlement agreement was drafted and when board president Marco Diaz signed it, Gonzalez felt uneasy about the arrangement. He hired a local law firm, Gomez Trial Attorneys, to represent him.
As backroom negotiations occurred, in February 2016, district staff decided to temporarily reinstate Gonzalez to his previous position.
Then, on March 2, 2016, the Gomez law firm sent a letter to San Ysidro School District asking that the district produce Gonzalez’s personnel file as well as preserve “all documents that relate to Mr. Gonzalez, including but not limited to documents contained in [his] personnel file, all documents relating to [his] termination, and all documents relating to San Ysidro School District’s decision to attempt to rescind Mr. Gonzalez’ termination.”
The following month, San Ysidro’s board of trustees met in closed session to consider what they felt was a March 2 “tort claim” — an accusation of non-criminal wrongdoing — from the Gomez law firm on behalf of Gonzalez, despite the fact that the letter didn’t indicate it was a tort claim. The board, nonetheless, rejected the claim. According to Sanchez-Macias, boardmembers simultaneously approved entering into the settlement agreement, the same one that was misdated, for $113,433.
On May 10, the district issued a payroll check, from the district’s general fund, to Gonzalez in the amount of $104,980, the leftover amount after Social Security and Medicare deductions. Both a spokesperson for the San Diego County Office of Education and Sanchez-Macias confirmed that the check came from the district’s general fund account.
The board did not report the agreement to the public until February 2017, after an article questioning the payment appeared in La Prensa. Sanchez-Macias says that because the agreement was considered a personnel issue, the board did not have to report it.
When asked how the board could reject a claim but approve a settlement agreement, Sanchez-Macias says, “The district has the authority and power to enter into any settlement agreements it wishes when dealing with personnel issues. I can’t comment on what happens in closed-session meetings other than the board rejected the tort claim and accepted the agreement. Again, the board is independent from the district and can vote how they see fit.”
As to why the district kept the decision quiet until February 2017, Sanchez-Macias says the agreement was confidential until it was leaked to the press.
And, regarding the fact that an employee who had only worked for two months was paid a year’s salary, Sanchez-Macias says, “This was not the administration’s decision to do this. The decision was made by the board. And, as I stated, the board has the authority to enter into any settlement agreement it wishes.”
In March 2017, government watchdog group San Diegans for Open Government sued Fonseca for misusing public funds to silence a whistleblower. Attorney Cory Briggs, who represents the group, says, “It is looking more and more like the superintendent, the current board president, and Mr. Sanchez-Macias are [trying] to cover up the superintendent’s undisclosed conflict of interest when he hired the woman he was [dating]. They used taxpayer money to buy the silence of a whistle-blower and, now having been caught...are trying to re-write history.”
Gonzalez declined to comment, stating, “The settlement agreement includes a confidentiality provision that prohibits me from discussing any aspect of the settlement agreement or the events leading up to the settlement.”