Executive Director of Finance and Operations Dr. Lisa Gonzales speaks during the Marysville School District budget presentation on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023 in Marysville, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Executive Director of Finance and Operations Dr. Lisa Gonzales speaks during the Marysville School District budget presentation on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023 in Marysville, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Bombshell letters accuse Marysville school leaders of ‘cronyism,’ ‘no plan’

Amid a packed meeting on pending school closures, finance director Lisa Gonzales called for the superintendent to be put on leave, citing “violations of the law.”

MARYSVILLE — In a bombshell letter Monday, the Marysville School District’s finance director Lisa Gonzales called for the school board to place the superintendent on leave, writing the district is guilty of “violations of the law, inaccurate state reports, and cronyism.”

Local media obtained the letter first shared at a packed school board meeting Monday evening, the first public comment session since the district announced the potential closure of Cascade Elementary School, Liberty Elementary School and Totem Middle School for the 2025-26 school year. The closures, recommended by Superintendent Zachary Robbins amid deep financial turmoil, still need final approval from the school board.

In the letter, the soon-to-be-former finance director pushed the board to arrange an outside investigation of the district. Gonzales, who joined the district last July, wrote that the board should also place Alvin Cooper, the head of Human Resources, on leave.

In an email, board President Wade Rinehardt wrote the board “is opening an investigation into the allegations contained in the letter from Dr. Gonzalez. As such, there will be no comment until substantive information is available from the investigation.”

“We will have more to say when we know more,” he added.

At Monday’s board meeting, parents and staff expressed anger with district leadership, stressing a lack of transparency as one of their issues.

One parent held up signs reading, “What incompetence looks like” and “The public supports your resignation,” with pictures of Robbins and the school board.

People hold signs during a Marysville School Board meeting on Monday, June 3, 2024, in Marysville, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

People hold signs during a Marysville School Board meeting on Monday, June 3, 2024, in Marysville, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

In an email, district spokesperson Jodi Runyon wrote the district will not renew Gonzales’ contract when it expires at the end of June.

Connor Krebbs, vice president of the school board, said in an interview Tuesday the district would ask its risk management pool to conduct the investigation. A risk pool is a form of financial protection similar to insurance, for losses like legal costs and property damage.

In March, the risk pool voted to terminate the district’s membership effective Aug. 31, citing a recent steep rise in claims, poorly maintained buildings and the district reneging on an agreement to help pay for a legal settlement, among other concerns.

The pool’s attorney, Tyna Ek, said Tuesday she had not heard anything about the letter.

Ek also wrote in an email the risk pool “does not conduct investigations,” but it “does, however, provide our member districts with investigation coverage to assist them in paying for an external investigation if the district elects to move forward with one.”

Krebbs said Gonzales emailed the letter to the school board around the same time it was circulating at Monday’s meeting.

In Gonzales’ previous job as chief business officer for the Mt. Diablo Unified School District in California, she faced a “no confidence” resolution brought by multiple unions after the 2020-2021 school year. The unions accused her of presenting “incorrect and damaging information” to the school board and demanded the district remove her from the position.

In an earlier interview, Gonzales said the allegations were untrue and a union tactic to undermine her leadership. She helped the Mt. Diablo district through a difficult financial period, she said.

In 2022, Gonzales received a “Business Services Administrator of the Year” award from the Association of California School Administrators.

School board members listen to public comment during a Marysville School Board meeting on Monday, June 3, 2024, in Marysville, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

School board members listen to public comment during a Marysville School Board meeting on Monday, June 3, 2024, in Marysville, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

In April, Gonzales reported “incompetence around management of leaves” in the Marysville School District to the state auditor’s office, she wrote. Late last month, she told Human Resources staff about her report to the state, “and the following day I was informed that I would no longer be employed once my contract ended.”

Gonzales wrote she was forced to go to the auditor’s office because of intimidation of finance staff who “are threatened with violation of civility policy and had harassment complaints filed against them….for doing their jobs.”

Finance staff met with Human Resources and “the top leader in the district to get assistance with ongoing errors, leave and interactive process issues, to no avail,” she wrote.

Gonzales also reached out to school board members Rinehardt and Kristen Michal about the problems, she wrote, but did not receive a response. Michal declined to comment Tuesday.

On Thursday, she added, Gonzales sent a 78-page document to the state superintendent’s office, calling “for an external investigation regarding falsifications, violations of the law, cronyism, and a hostile work environment that is most prevalent with top leadership and HR directed to” staff at district headquarters.

That document, obtained by The Daily Herald, refers to a “toxic environment, intimidation, and misrepresentation of information in the Marysville School District.”

Gonzales wrote in the document she is “fairly confident the district will not be able to meet the parameters of binding conditions in the short term.”

She accused district leaders of being “dishonest, unethical, and blatantly (disregarding) practices the district needs to be fiscally sound.”

Robbins “lied from beginning to end” in a “union/leadership” meeting last week, she wrote, where they were set to talk about a letter from the state about binding conditions and “next steps with our insurance.”

“It was apparent to all union members in the room that he was dancing around questions, had no answers, had no plan, and when pushed, could not complete any thoughtful approaches to how the group might be communicated with or worked with,” Gonzales continued.

State superintendent spokesperson Katy Payne wrote in an email the agency was reviewing the document.

On Friday, Gonzales wrote in her public letter, she “was placed on paid administrative leave with no explanation.”

She also accused the district of favoring those “close to top leadership … including hiring and promotion without having appropriate experience.”

Gonzales blamed district leaders for issues with the district’s first financial plan, which the state superintendent’s office rejected in April. Since August, the district has been in so-called “binding conditions,” meaning it must work with the state agency and local educational service district to solve its budget crisis.

The state later approved a revised plan.

In the document submitted to the state superintendent’s office, Gonzales wrote Robbins directed staff not to correct an error in the original plan regarding the number of employees in the district.

The number ended up being off by more than 100 employees, she wrote.

The original plan included closing Legacy High School, Gonzales wrote in the document, a move that would have saved the district $1.3 million. It also slated a communications specialist role for elimination.

“At the 11th hour,” she wrote, Robbins “let us know the board was no longer interested in” closing Legacy. Runyon, the head of the communications department, also “insisted” the superintendent not cut the communications position, Gonzales wrote.

“Preferential treatment,” she wrote, was likely behind the last-minute changes.

Closing Legacy would have allowed the district to keep one of the elementary schools open, she wrote in her public letter.

Finance staff couldn’t get a meeting with the school board to explain their position on the high school’s closure, she wrote, “which leads many to believe it may have more to do with the Legacy principal’s history with top leaders than the school board changing its mind.”

Exactly what “history” she’s referring to isn’t spelled out in the letter.

District executive directors were also “told to STOP putting anything negative in writing about leaders and others so there would be no paper trail,” Gonzales wrote.

Other problems Gonzales mentioned in her public letter include memorandums of understanding that “continue to be created in HR and signed by top leadership with notable financial implications and no funds to pay for them in our current Revised Financial Plan.”

She concluded: “Marysville deserves much much better.”

Gonzales’ attorney declined to comment on her behalf Tuesday, “beyond what is said in the letter.”

At the Monday meeting, Dana “Mike” Wray, a special education teacher at Totem Middle School, said he was “disappointed and saddened” about the potential closure.

Totem has “the best special ed team in the district,” he said. “What’s gonna happen to us when we break up the team?”

A parent outlined steps the board should take to establish trust, including transparency and owning up to past mistakes.

“You consistently deceive us, the community, at every turn,” she said.

Christine Cobb, a third grade teacher at Pinewood Elementary School, referred to “atrocious working conditions” in the district this year.

Christine Cobb speaks during a Marysville School Board meeting on Monday, June 3, 2024, in Marysville, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Christine Cobb speaks during a Marysville School Board meeting on Monday, June 3, 2024, in Marysville, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

On the district losing risk pool membership, Cobb said: “Once again, it is the children who will be bearing the brunt of these errors.”

After public comment, board member Beth Hoiby said the recommended school closures were “to me, not decided,” adding speakers brought up “really good points” at the meeting. Rinehardt and Krebbs agreed. Rinehardt noted the board will get a lot of community input before making a decision on the proposed closures.

Krebbs thanked attendees for coming to the meeting.

“It’s unfortunate that it takes controversy to bring people out,” he said. “I understand. But when you do come out, it lets me know how much the community members care about the schools.”

The school district released a statement on Gonzales’ statements Tuesday evening:

Dr. Lisa Gonzales, Executive Director of Finance and Operations, was hired by the Marysville School District in July 2023. On May 31, 2024, the district announced that her employment contract would end on June 30, 2024, and she would not be returning to the district.

On June 3, 2024, the Marysville School District received a written statement drafted by Dr. Lisa Gonzales. In the statement, Dr. Gonzales makes several allegations about the district, its fiscal and human resources operations, and other staff-related areas. The allegations are under review.

The district, committed to transparency and accountability, takes allegations like these very seriously. In line with this commitment, an outside investigator will conduct an investigation to examine the allegations and Dr. Gonzales’s other comments thoroughly.

Sophia Gates: 425-339-3035; sophia.gates@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @SophiaSGates.

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