Chula Vista Councilwoman Mary Salas, who is running for mayor, wants to unify all elementary and secondary schools within the city of Chula Vista under one school district. If combined, the new district would serve students from over 40 elementary schools, eight high schools, six middle schools and several alternative and adult schools.

Why now?

A district merge has been proposed in the past, but never went through. So why has the proposal resurfaced? Salas said conversations with community members and parents persuaded her to put the proposal forward.

Salas said parents want a seamless transition as their kids move from elementary school to middle school.   Right now, Chula Vista students go to school within CVESD through sixth grade. Once they enter seventh grade, they move into the Sweetwater Union High School District through high school graduation.

CVESD has 48 campuses throughout east and west Chula Vista. Middle School and High School students are funneled into SUHSD from four elementary school districts.

Photo by Bianca Bruno
Photo by Bianca Bruno

Salas said parents have told her that their voices are heard by administrators at the elementary school level, but that there’s a lack of communication as their children move on to higher grade levels.

SUHSD Board of Trustees Vice President John McCann agrees. He said continuity from kindergarten through 12th grade would keep the district accountable to the students it serves.

“There’s a large change going from district to district,” he said. “I thought it was a good time [to unify] a decade ago. Our children’s education is one of the most important issues we face as a society.”

The City Council is wielding its power.

The state’s Education Code spells out three options to initiate a unification process.

Typically, a petition is signed by registered voters who live within the school districts. But Salas has taken the less common approach. The unification process can be initiated if a resolution is approved by a City Council majority.

Salas said that the petition process can get too political. There haven’t been many school unifications initiated by City Councils, Salas admits, but she said nonetheless that she plans to bring the issue before the Council in a month, and it will vote on a resolution.

The school districts aren’t buying it.

Not everyone is supportive of the merge.

A statement released by the SUHSD on Feb. 11 compared the merge to “asking the city of Chula Vista to merge with National City or the southern portion of the city of San Diego.”

Basically, Sweetwater believes that as the second largest high school district in California, it’s distinct enough to merit a standalone entity. The district’s 32 campuses are located across multiple South Bay cities, including Chula Vista, Imperial Beach, National City and San Diego.

If Chula Vista schools become unified, the schools outside of Chula Vista that are currently located within the Sweetwater District will be in limbo. It’s possible a new district would need to be created for schools like San Ysidro High School and Montgomery Middle School.

While the CVESD hasn’t completely shot down the idea, Superintendent Francisco Escobedo believes the districts will experience growing pains under unification.

“I equate it as a merger of two companies – there are different cultures, different processes,” he said. “There could be short- term losses, but there may also be long- term gains.”

Escobedo said CVESD will look at student achievement data and how their stakeholders could be affected by unification. He also said that he will collaborate with Sweetwater to improve the K-12 experience.

National City Mayor Ron Morrison told NBC7 he’s concerned how unification could affect other school districts in the South Bay.

Some students are going east.

Salas said that while the Chula Vista district doesn’t have problems with students opting out of attending their local schools, Sweetwater Union does. She blames open enrollment for students fleeing high schools and middle schools in west Chula Vista to attend schools on the east side.

Declining enrollment at Castle Park Middle School, Castle Park High School and Hilltop High School is proof that Sweetwater Union schools are held to a different standard, Salas said.

“It seems you’ve given up on schools here, and that’s not right,” Salas said. “Every school should be a center of academic excellence.”

All will be revealed.

The process of unification allows for public forums, meetings and fact-finding by the Board of Education. Salas said those transparency measures are especially needed in Chula Vista, given the problems there’s been with tracking bonds money from Prop O.

Between 2011 and 2012 Sweetwater reportedly borrowed from the $644 million bond to make ends meet. Salas said the district currently only has a 3 percent reserve.

The unification process should include full disclosure of schools’ finances. Salas said that whether or not unification happens, the process itself can build stronger school districts.

“If at the end of the day there’s no unification, the process of dialogue and transparency can build better districts.”

Unification won’t happen overnight.

Alpine recently went through a unification process that took eight years.

If Salas’ proposal is approved by the City Council and the unification process begins, it will take years before the two school districts are actually joined.

The San Diego County Board of Education would look into how unification could affect other districts in the South Bay, and whether reorganization could lead to segregation.

Correction: An earlier version of this post mischaracterized Councilwoman Mary Salas proposal. She has proposed creating a unified school district comprising schools located only within the city of Chula Vista.

Bianca Bruno is Voice of San Diego's News Literacy program manager. She works with Chula Vista residents, promoting equal access to news through civic...

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