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Sweetwater Union High School District employees, who are battling for a new labor contract, have started a petition drive to remove Superintendent Jesus Gandara. The employees say the school chief fails to cooperate and “relies on intimidation to gain consent.” They are calling their effort a declaration of “no confidence.”

Tensions within the school district soared after Sweetwater revealed plans to lay off teachers to cope with an estimated $11.6 million deficit for next school year. It originally warned more than 100 teachers of potential layoffs. But thanks to a golden handshake that prodded some veteran employees out of the schools, it has since canceled the majority of those warnings, leaving only 37 teachers still in danger of losing their jobs.

Also, negotiations between the district and the Sweetwater teachers union have reached a standstill after nearly 10 months of bargaining. The union has pushed for a “status quo” contract that would keep salaries and benefits intact, while the district wants to trim salaries 2 percent, assign fewer teachers to schools, and offer different benefits to new employees than to current ones.

“The union is asking for a status quo contract,” said Lillian Leopold, spokeswoman for Sweetwater Union High School District. “And this is not a status quo economy.”

Gandara joined the Sweetwater district nearly three years ago after more than a decade of work in Texas schools. Sam Lucero, president of the Sweetwater Education Association, argued that Gandara did not know the area and “hails from a right-to-work state — I call it a right-to-work-for-less state.”

“He reeks of disrespect,” Lucero said. “None of his actions create a collaborative relationship with any of the leadership.”

Leopold said that this was not the first time that a Sweetwater superintendent was given “a vote of no confidence” during a budget crisis, citing a similar vote taken on former Superintendent Edward Brand in the past.

“Frankly, during all of the negotiations, the union has not come up with one counterproposal,” Leopold said, adding, “We’re not asking them to do anything that nobody else has been considering.”

The petition is being circulated by four employee groups, including the unions that represent teachers, counselors, custodians and bus drivers. It was first distributed last week. Lucero did not know how many employees had signed.

Correction: Oops. I mistakenly wrote that Gandara worked in the school district in the 1970s and 1980s, a detail that I found in an old, unsigned superintendent’s column on the Sweetwater website. That would have been a great detail, if it had come from the right superintendent. The column was written by the interim superintendent just before Gandara arrived. My apologies to everyone for the mistake.

EMILY ALPERT

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