San Ysidro School District Superintendent Julio Fonseca attends a school board meeting on July 9, 2015. (Megan Wood/inewsource)
By Leonardo Castañeda | inewsource
Taxpayers in the San Ysidro School District paid Superintendent Julio Fonseca, who resigned last month, at least $1 million in total compensation for 26 months of work in one of San Diego County's poorest school districts.
inewsource is the first to detail Fonseca's compensation from his time in San Ysidro, including two little-known perks for life insurance and health care. His salary, benefits and severance package average out to make him the highest paid school district superintendent in San Diego County and the second highest paid in California based on data from Transparent California. The nonprofit think tank compiles public employee pay and pension information.
"I think he (Fonseca) abused his power. He took the board as fools," said school board member Rodolfo Linares, who believes he and his fellow trustees were misled last year when they approved certain benefits for the superintendent.
Linares said he wants the board to investigate how that happened and wants the district to rescind Fonseca's nearly $376,000 separation agreement.
"I'm not going to be silent. (The) community needs to know," Linares said. "We are board members, we were elected to protect the district and the students. And it's our duty to investigate."
inewsource's attempts to reach Fonseca by phone and at his publicly listed residence were unsuccessful.
- Cumulative salary: $479,234.
- Separation agreement: $375,703.
- Deferred life insurance: $106,000.
- Gap health care coverage: $37,000.
- Mileage and cellphone: $15,600.
- One-time housing allowance: $10,000.
- Health care benefits: $45,500.
Fonseca's compensation, excluding his pension, averaged out to about $493,000 annually. That's significantly more than the roughly $346,000 in compensation that Transparent California said Cindy Marten made in 2016 to head the San Diego Unified School District, the second largest district in California.
Linares told inewsource he thinks school board members were misled in 2016 when they twice voted to provide gap health care coverage and deferred life insurance to Fonseca and Deputy Superintendent Jose Arturo Sanchez-Macias, who is now the interim superintendent. For Fonseca, the gap coverage was paid directly to him, and the deferred life insurance was deposited in a retirement account.
San Ysidro School District’s interim superintendent, Jose Arturo Sanchez-Macias, listens to public comments during a recent school board meeting. (Leonardo Castañeda/inewsource)
Linares said at the time of the vote he believed the board was voting on a pay increase for the superintendent, rather than additional benefits. He said Fonseca did not make the proposal clear for trustees.
Sanchez-Macias acknowledged to inewsource that taxpayers might question the $137,000 he also has received for deferred life insurance and gap health care coverage benefits, and he would be open to the school board cutting them from his compensation package.
"I would actually take it out of my own contract," he said. "You don't want to have more than what you are entitled to receive for the work that you are performing."
Sanchez-Macias' current annual salary is about $223,000. He said his compensation, as well as what Fonseca received, might seem excessive compared to San Diego Unified, a district that is 22 times larger. He has an explanation.
In a smaller district, he said, top administrators have to take on more responsibilities that are given to other full-time employees in bigger districts.
"There's districts that have an architecture firm working for the district. That's about $300,000 more. In our case, I am the architect, I am the I.T., I am the transportation," Sanchez-Macias said. "So you get a really good value for your buck."
Recap of superintendent's tenure
Fonseca was hired in 2015 and given an annual salary of about $199,000 to lead the predominantly Latino district that serves about 4,800 students. Many of them are poor - 81 percent were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches during the 2016-17 school year, more than any district in the county.
The elementary and middle school district also was just starting to find its financial footing after teetering on bankruptcy. The district avoided a state takeover, but its money woes returned a year after Fonseca was hired. Last fiscal year, the district had a nearly $1 million budget shortfall and projects a roughly $925,000 shortfall for fiscal 2018.
Fonseca also faced allegations that he fired an employee who accused him of having a romantic relationship with a woman the superintendent recommended the district hire. The district last year paid a more than $113,000 settlement to the fired worker.
That action led San Diego attorney Cory Briggs to sue Fonseca, saying the settlement was an illegal payment because the fired employee never filed a claim against the district as required by law and that the school board didn't approve the payout. Briggs is also suing to get public records related to the fired employee.
San Ysidro school board President Rosaleah Pallasigue and board member Antonio Martinez listen to public comment during a recent school board meeting. (Leonardo Castañeda/inewsource)
Despite this controversy and the district's financial troubles, the school board issued a statement when Fonseca resigned on Sept. 1 thanking him for his "tireless and dedicated service" and said his tenure had "been highly productive and impactful for student learning."
His final annual salary was slightly more than $250,000 - a 26 percent increase from when he was hired 26 months earlier.
Litigation and recalls follow resignation
Two weeks after Fonseca resigned, Briggs sued him and the San Ysidro district, contending the superintendent was ineligible for a $376,000 separation payment because he resigned. Under the agreement, he also received 18 months of continuing health care coverage. In exchange for those benefits, he cannot file a claim against the district.
The suit asks the court to order Fonseca to return the payout to the district.
School board member Linares said the district also may be able to recover the money because he does not believe the special meeting held to accept Fonseca's resignation was properly noticed as required under California's public meeting law. The agenda did not say the meeting was about the superintendent's employment, and it should have, Linares said.
San Ysidro school board member Rodolfo Linares reads a document during a board meeting in this undated photo. (Megan Wood/inewsource)
He said that means the board could re-vote on the settlement, and he has asked board President Rosaleah Pallasigue to put that on a meeting agenda.
Pallasigue is one of two board members singled out last week by some residents for how Fonseca's resignation and compensation was handled.
During Thursday's board meeting, Pallasigue and trustee Antonio Martinez were served notices that residents intend to circulate recall petitions to try to remove them from office. The notice, published on page 9 in the La Prensa San Diego newspaper, criticizes the board members for their role in the $113,000 settlement to the fired employee who made allegations against Fonseca.
The notice also says the trustees "supported the nearly $400,000 buyout of superintendent Fonseca," and claims Martinez supported Fonseca's $143,000 in deferred life insurance and gap coverage benefits, calling them "illegal."
In an email to inewsource responding to the recall, Martinez said: "I'm proud of my record fighting for our community by increasing classroom funding, strengthening services for the most vulnerable and standing up for our fair share from City Hall and Sacramento. A small, fringe group of critics won't stop me from continuing to fight for what's right for working families in our community."
Pallasigue did not respond to a request for comment.
Registrar of Voters Michael Vu said his office received the recall notices on Thursday. The two trustees will now have seven days to respond. Organizers will then have 120 days to collect 3,221 signatures from registered voters in the school district.
inewsource is an independent, investigative journalism nonprofit supported by foundations, philanthropists and viewers like you.
Read additional stories on the inewsource.org website.