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A sign hangs from the front of Carmel Creek Elementary school in Solana Beach shortly after the firing of Lisa Busalacchi-Ryder. Courtesy photo
A sign hangs from the front of Carmel Creek Elementary school in Solana Beach shortly after the firing of Lisa Busalacchi-Ryder. Courtesy photo
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Former Carmel Creek principal wins wrongful termination suit

SOLANA BEACH — A former principal at Carmel Creek Elementary School was awarded over $186,000 in damages this month after a jury determined that the Solana Beach School District dismissed her from her position because she had to leave campus to pick up her daughter. 

Lisa Busalacchi-Ryder, employed for seven years as Carmel Creek principal and 15 years total in the district, filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the district in early 2022 after being removed from her position in April 2021. 

The former principal alleged that she was removed after several instances of having to leave campus to pick up her own daughter from a neighboring school a half mile away. She said she had previously received permission from the district to take these absences and had not received any indication that she was doing anything wrong.

Following a three-week trial in Vista Superior Court that concluded March 4, the jury determined that Busalacchi-Ryder was eligible for family care leave under the California Family Rights Act, that she provided reasonable notice to the district of her need for leave, and that the district caused her harm. 

Jury members also concluded that her taking time off to address childcare needs and school emergencies was the district’s motivating factor behind their decision to remove her. She was awarded a total of $186,711 in lost earnings. 

“I am grateful to the jury for their service and verdict in recognizing that Solana Beach School District violated my right to family care leave, and broke the law by removing me as Carmel Creek Principal.  I greatly appreciated the unwavering support of the teachers, staff, my colleagues and the parent community over the past three years,” Busalacchi-Ryder said in an emailed statement. “I hope that in the future, Solana Beach School District will never treat another employee the way they treated me.”

Former Carmel Creek principal Lisa Busalacchi-Ryder pictured in a 2018 photo. Contributed
Former Carmel Creek principal Lisa Busalacchi-Ryder pictured in a 2018 photo. Contributed Former Carmel Creek principal Lisa Busalacchi-Ryder pictured in a 2018 photo. Contributed

Busalacchi-Ryder stated in her lawsuit that she frequently had to leave the Carmel Creek campus in early 2021 to pick up her daughter from Solana Pacific Elementary, another school in the district, due to her daughter’s extreme anxiety for which she had an individualized education plan (IEP).

Busalacchi-Ryder said she always designated an administrator to be in charge of the Carmel Creek campus and was available via phone when she had to leave. Her absences were regularly under an hour and taken during her break, and if she was away for a longer period of time, she said she informed then-Superintendent Jodee Brentlinger and submitted leave requests. 

Brentlinger, who retired from the district in January, never indicated there was any issue with her absences, according to the lawsuit, nor did Brentlinger or other district staff inform her that she was eligible for family care leave.

During this time, Busalacchi-Ryder was experiencing ongoing issues with implementing her daughter’s IEP, and in March 2021, she requested routine documents related to this plan. 

The next month, Busalacchi-Ryder was told she was being investigated for misusing her position as principal to access her daughter’s educational records, concerns about her judgment, and improperly reporting absences. 

Later, she and her husband decided to withdraw their daughter from the district and send her to another school in March 2021. 

“Because of the District’s investigation, the timing of the investigation to Ryder’s participation in the IEP process, and the District’s orders to remain silent, Ryder and her husband feared the District would retaliate against them or [their daughter],” the lawsuit stated. 

Days later, Brentlinger recommended that Busalacchi-Ryder be removed as principal for reasons including “persistent failure to follow procedures for permission and reporting of absences.” She was reassigned to administrative work in the district office and informed she would receive a pay cut, before resigning in August. 

At the time, the district’s decision to remove Busalacchi-Ryder as principal shocked Carmel Creek parents and staff, who said she excelled at her job and was beloved by the school community. Very little information was given then, and a petition for an investigation into her removal received hundreds of signatures.

Carmel Creek parents who attended the trial in support of the former principal said they were glad to see justice served in this case and to finally get answers about what happened. 

“As a parent and as a staff member, as a community member, we were all just shocked and saddened. We didn’t understand it; the community loved Mrs. Ryder, they respected her,” said Pearl Hibsman, who served as Busalacchi-Ryder’s office assistant in 2021. “To finally have her vindicated, it’s a relief. We’re all really happy for her.” 

At the Solana Beach School District’s March 14 board meeting, Hibsman and several other community members spoke in support of the former principal and said the district should have handled things much differently. 

“This horrible situation is over, but it has left the entire district scarred and sad,” said Carmel Creek speech pathologist Susan Johnson. “How are you going to rebuild trust and communication with the Solana Beach community?” 

Brentlinger no longer works in the Solana Beach School District, having retired from her superintendent position in January. 

The Solana Beach School District declined to comment on the verdict. District Board of Trustees President Debra Schade sent a written statement to The Coast News.

“While this situation has been unfortunate for all involved, the Board of Education continues to support the decision to reassign the employee. Our actions were and will continue to be guided by our unwavering commitment to always prioritize service to students,” Schade said.

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