By Jared D. Childress | Special to the OBSERVER
After months of letters, petitions, and student walkouts demanding Dr. Kadhir Rajagopal be reinstated as principal of Oakdale Elementary School, the Twin Rivers Unified School District (TRUSD) board of trustees voted April 26 to place him on immediate unpaid suspension, which would lead to his termination after 30 days, per Education Code 44940.5. As of press time, Rajagopal is in the appeals process and remains on suspension.
Rajagopal, the 2011 California Teacher of the Year, was removed without explanation from Oakdale on Dec. 17, sparking outrage from parents. Rajagopal was receiving praise for launching a schoolwide mentor program, Handz On Mentor, that provided each student with a culturally responsive mentor.
The May 10 and May 24 board meetings were filled with Rajagopal supporters, who urged the district to rescind the suspension.
“When they start gutting resources from schools, that means students are on the chopping block,” said Alecia Eugene-Chasten, who served as the first Black TRUSD trustee from 2008 to 2012. “They snatched [Rajagopal] out of that beautiful program and basically chose to keep Black students in the school-to-prison pipeline.”
TRUSD serves some of Sacramento’s most underserved areas, including Del Paso Heights and North Highlands. The district’s student population is 53.5% Black and brown and 90% receive free or reduced lunch.
In a statement to The OBSERVER, TRUSD said certificated employees can be terminated only by the California Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) which is an independent agency housed within the state’s Department of General Services.
TRUSD said that, per policy, it does not comment on personnel matters.
“[We know] how frustrating it can be for the public when we do not comment on the specifics of an investigation,” the district wrote. “However, all employees must be afforded the right to have their individual situations reviewed in a fair … and private manner [that does not violate] an employee’s due process.”
Rajagopal, who is of south Asian and Ethiopian descent, said TRUSD didn’t notify him of the April 26 meeting where the board voted in favor of a recommendation by Gina Carreon, the district’s chief human resources official, to suspend him. He said that violates the Ralph M. Brown Act, which requires employees be given 24-hour written notice of their right to have their charges heard in an open session. If notice is not given, any action taken in a closed session is null and void.
In a March 9 phone conversation, trustee Michael Baker told The OBSERVER that principals can be removed from school sites at the discretion of district Superintendent Dr. Steve Martinez and Associate Superintendent of School Leadership Lori Grace.
“They may not have to give me a reason [for the removal] but the community is asking, ‘Ethically, why would you choose to remove a principal from a school that is beginning to do well?’” said Rajagopal, who raised nearly $1 million in grant money to fund his mentorship program.
“A lot of principals don’t know how to deal with students who experience poverty like Dr. Raja does. He brought out the best in students,” said parent Sheena Jones. “Why weren’t the parents involved in this decision?”
TRUSD said the disciplinary process is “often misunderstood by the public. … Causes for dismissal of a permanent public school teacher in California are explicitly defined in the Education Code.”
Education Code 44932 defines grounds for termination as “immoral conduct, including, but not limited to, egregious misconduct.”
Rajagopal denied any immoral and/or egregious misconduct.
“I paid the district $35 for my personnel file and there was nothing in it,” Rajagopal said.
He added that in March, TRUSD gave him the option of resigning or returning to teaching. “If I had done something really wrong, they wouldn’t have given me that option.”
Rajagopal said charges against him involve his communications with parents about his removal and the student walkouts.
“I was honest when I communicated with parents and the media because it was in the best interest of the students,” Rajagopal said. He added that his mentorship program helps with societal challenges of mental wellness, incarceration, and gun violence.
Other educators involved in the Oakdale student walkouts also faced disciplinary action.
Asad Akbar, a media teacher of 15 years at Grant High School, said he received a nine-day suspension April 26 for his involvement with the student walkouts. After the nine days, he said he would return to paid administrative leave.
When asked why he supported Rajagopal, Akbar said Ragagopal “is a once-in-a-lifetime educator. The summer before he started working at Oakdale [in 2020], he said he was going to transform that school, and he did.”
“Unfortunately, there’s a history of changemakers being scrutinized,” said Akbar, a Pakistani immigrant. “Great agitators like Dr. King and Rosa Parks were on the receiving end of discipline. If you peel away all the speculation, you’ll see [Rajagopal is] an incredibly effective, radical educator.”
Some attendees at the May 24 board meeting wore yellow shirts with the word “recall” in capital letters across the chest.
Sascha Vogt was among the parents who petitioned for a 2014 recall that successfully unseated a former trustee for Area 5. When asked if she supports another recall, Vogt said “All options are on the table.”
“The district has never given much merit to what the community thinks,” Vogt said. “It always has to be outside pressure that changes things.”
Rajagopal said he hopes to avoid a recall and instead wants to work with TRUSD in the best interest of the students.
“I don’t want vengeance, I just want to help the kids,” said Rajagopal, who presented his Handz On Mentor program to state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond on May 16. “I just want to work with the district to help the kids who are failing.”
Support for this Sacramento OBSERVER article was provided to Word In Black (WIB) by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. WIB is a collaborative of 10 Black-owned media that includes print and digital partners.