Sunday, June 21, 2009 | Jesus Gandara was described as a miracle worker when Sweetwater Union High School District, the largest high school district in the state, hired him as its leader nearly three years ago.

It was an apt image for Gandara, who introduced himself to schools as a man of faith. School board members touted his record of upping test scores in a tiny, impoverished school district on the border of Texas and Mexico. And Sweetwater welcomed miracles after a turbulent year: It had cycled through two interim chiefs before tapping Gandara.

But now, as he nears the end of his third year overseeing a district that encompasses the middle and high schools from National City to San Ysidro, Gandara is in the crosshairs of a campaign to unseat him. Four labor unions from teachers to custodians have joined forces, gathering signatures for a petition that argues that he “neither welcomes nor respects input” and “relies on intimidation to gain consent.” Union leaders estimate that nearly 2,000 of their roughly 6,600 workers have signed the petition.

Their complaints are numerous, from Gandara’s attitude to his actions. The union has clashed with the school district over its contract, pushing for a deal that keeps their salaries and benefits intact. Others criticize Gandara’s spending on meals and trips on the school district dime, which averaged more than $1,200 a month this year. An editorial in a high school newspaper called him “a Marie Antoinette figure, complete with financial irresponsibility and social insensitivity.” And unions are not the only ones angry: Many principals and middle managers were stunned by his decision to demote two of his highest ranking employees in March.

The school board has largely stayed out of the fray after a member highly critical of Gandara, Jaime Mercado, lost his re-election bid last fall.

Gandara dismisses the furor as a union tactic as bargaining goes on with the teachers union and the budget crisis barrels on. “The superintendent is the lightning rod — I understand that,” he said. “I don’t take it personally. I have to do what I think is right for children.”

Complaints about superintendents and their leadership styles are not unusual, especially as the budget crisis pushes school districts to slash jobs and programs. A milder petition criticizing “top-down administration” was delivered to San Diego Unified by its teachers union last week; former Sweetwater superintendent Ed Brand was previously dealt one. School district leaders are hopeful that the recent election of a new teachers’ union president, Alex Anguiano, will cool the furor: Spokeswoman Lillian Leopold said that Anguiano has a better relationship with Gandara, who said that when the old President Sam Lucero was voted out, “he got his vote of no confidence — and his was louder than mine.”

But several sources within the union said that the vote indicated a push for “a wartime president” who will continue their fight, not call it off. Employees charge that the uproar is not about proposed salary cuts or layoffs, which have been canceled as Sweetwater found other ways to cut $11.6 million from its $348 million budget, but about Gandara himself. And those worries — whether real, perceived or politicized — have not abated.

One union leader remembered Gandara visiting her after she complained to the school board about a computer system.

“He yelled at me. Just chewed me out. ‘You’re never to go to the board again. Don’t ever go to the board again and make this kind of complaint. You have an issue, you bring it to me.’ He was yelling and waving his finger in front of my nose,” said Julie Hitchcock, president of the Sweetwater Counseling and Guidance Association. She added, “Now it’s coming from the directors. He bullies them, they bully us — it all kind of trickles downhill.”

Outsiders who have worked with Gandara in other capacities found the criticism strange. Scott Himelstein, director of the Center for Education Policy and Law at the University of San Diego, said that he had never found Gandara to be combative. But a chorus of complaints focuses on Gandara’s attitude toward employees. They are not confined to unions: Numerous employees in management positions declined to be quoted for this story, saying they feared for their jobs. A retiree has become their spokeswoman.

The demotions “were the tipping point,” said Mary Anne Stro, who retired as a principal eight years ago. “If they can do this to Karen and Dianna, they can do anything to anybody.”

Stro was referring to the demotions of Karen Janney and Dianna Carberry, two assistant superintendents who lost their jobs after declining lesser positions in the school district. Demoting Janney, in particular, has inspired outrage from longtime employees who praised her as a competent and caring leader, citing the lofty awards she received and local projects she helped to complete. Sweetwater has since hired an outside consultant for $50,000 over roughly three months to take on leadership in curriculum and instruction and has chosen another consultant for $15,000 to help find replacements for the two chiefs.

“She had the respect and trust of the community, and to have someone like that have their legs cut out from underneath them — it was a shock,” said Colleen Cooke-Salas, a teacher at Mar Vista Middle School.

Reasons for the demotions are unclear. While Sweetwater schools learned they had much room to improve in a critical report from the County Office of Education, the report was not shared with Gandara and other staff until weeks after Janney and Carberry were demoted. Janney’s department was ranked highly in an internal survey last year of how managers felt about Sweetwater departments and their timeliness, communication and quality; Carberry was in the middle of the pack.

Board President Jim Cartmill said that decisions about the top personnel must be left to Gandara.

“We can’t keep a superintendent accountable for results unless he or she is allowed to hire who they want,” he said. “The reassurance I would give the public is, if we don’t see progress on a yearly basis, then we hold the superintendent accountable.”

Gandara had overseen or held high positions at several small Texas school districts before Sweetwater came calling. Board members in Mercedes Independent School District, the last system he oversaw, credit him with helping to pass facilities bonds and getting poor families involved.

Business became his focus in Sweetwater, where he names the dysfunctional computer system that Hitchcock complained about as one challenge, along with dropping enrollment, budget woes and its $644 million facilities bond. Though most of the bond projects are in their infancy, Gandara prides himself on roughly $10 million in savings from three large projects where bids came in below estimates.

But the bond also became a bone of contention. Changes to the bond projects included in the list angered the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, which complained that promises were being broken as the school district canceled some of its plans. Gandara said that the original bond plan included needless repairs. Lani Lutar, president of the group, said Sweetwater staffers told her they were only barred from building projects that were not included in the bond list. Gandara seemed not to care “if his decisions contradicted commitments to voters,” she said.

Rudy Gonzalez, who leads the committee charged with overseeing the bond, called it a misunderstanding. Not all bond projects on the list had to be done, he said. “They were examples.”

Critics and supporters of Gandara alike say he has largely left the educational side of schools, curriculum and instruction, to his subordinates. He now says that was a mistake and he will get involved. A County Office of Education study of Sweetwater schools that recently found that strategies to help lagging students were inconsistent, though annual test scores show improvement in Sweetwater over time.

“I was focused in other areas,” Gandara said. “I was making assumptions that what I was asking to be done was being done, that we had rigor in our classrooms, that we were moving in the right direction. But when you have an outside entity come in and they say, ‘You’re lacking rigor’ — that was a wake up call for me.”

Meanwhile, his critics are still issuing a call of their own.

“When you can get almost half of your employees saying, ‘Get rid of this guy’ — that’s telling to me,” Stro said.

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