The idea of merging Chula Vista elementary and secondary schools into a single district has re-emerged thanks to a new push from Chula Vista Councilwoman Mary Salas.

Salas believes parents aren’t being served well once their kids enter upper grade levels within the Sweetwater Union High School District, which has been plagued by scandals in recent years.

But Chula Vista Mayor Cheryl Cox’s State of the City address Tuesday night revealed a powerful counterargument: A merger to bolster Sweetwater schools could drag Chula Vista schools down.

Cox is worried how unification with SUHSD could affect the high-performing elementary school district. Cox said the district’s success can be attributed to ethical conduct by elected officials and administrators – a not-so-subtle invocation of Sweetwater’s troubled recent history.

All Chula Vista Elementary School District schools exceed 800 on the Academic Performance Index, which measures academic achievement and growth in schools, with more than 25 percent scoring at 900, said Cox. The API is based on a scale from 200 to 1,000. Sweetwater’s 2013 API score was just under 800.

“I wouldn’t want anything to disrupt our elementary school district’s enviable performance or put its finances at risk to bail out Sweetwater,” Cox said.

The Chula Vista district’s director of communications was similarly wary.

He told The Reader: “We appreciate the high regard that parents have of the Chula Vista Elementary School District. However, a lot of research and analysis needs to be conducted to make an informed decision about unification.”

He asked whether it would be wise for CVESD to take on Sweetwater’s financial liabilities – CVESD currently has a healthy reserve, at just over 20 percent. SUHSD is down to just 3 percent.

Cox said unification is not the best path to solving Sweetwater’s problems and tarnished reputation. Rather, she suggests the culture of the Sweetwater district must change before unification can be a viable option for Chula Vista schools.

“Culture at the top needs to change at Sweetwater before a conversation about unification can begin,” Cox said.

Cox said failed attempts to unite the districts over the years should be a telltale sign that the approach doesn’t do much to improve how the schools are governed. Plus, she said, the districts themselves don’t want to do it.

“Minus the support of the districts themselves, unification is dead on arrival,” Cox said.

Cox, who has taken a hands-off approach when it comes to SUHSD’s many controversies, said she plans to hold conversations with community members in the coming months to discuss how best to address problems within the school district.

“I am compelled to confront Sweetwater’s current problems through my ability to convene community members in constructive conversation,” Cox said.

Cox said most SUHSD schools and administrative offices are in Chula Vista, a fact that could lead negative perceptions about the district to carry over to the city.

Though Cox and Salas diverge when it comes to the effectiveness of a merger, they do seem to agree on one point: The districts’ finances need a public airing.

Salas told VOSD that even if the merger doesn’t happen, the unification process could be a step in the right direction for the Sweetwater district. “If at the end of the day there’s no unification, the process of dialogue and transparency can build better districts,” Salas said.

Cox wants a full audit to make Sweetwater’s financial situation public. The audit, she said, is the only way the new Sweetwater administration will “know what they’re in for.”

Bianca Bruno

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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