South Bay voters have a chance next month to turn things around, electing five new school board trustees to represent Sweetwater Union High School District.
The November election comes after months of clean-up in the wake of a pay-to-play scandal that rocked the district for years. The scandal involved board members accepting gifts from contractors that were above state limits, and snowballed into a painful headache for the Sweetwater community. Now four of the five trustees have been convicted.
READ MORE: Three Big Reforms That Came out of the Sweetwater Scandal
Since then, the district and communities it covers have been overhauling the way these key representatives are chosen.
Gene Chavira was the chief petitioner who spearheaded the effort to change up district elections.
WATCH: San Diego Explained: A New Kind of Election for Sweetwater Schools
Chavira is a teacher at Mar Vista High School and has been keeping tabs on the reform process from the beginning. Chavira sat down with us to tell us more about the district’s progress he’s seen over the last several months and what he expects from November’s election.
At what point during the Sweetwater scandal did you decide that you needed to do something about the trustees?
We knew we had to do something when they didn’t listen to us, the teachers, about [former Sweetwater Superintendent] Jesus Gandara. We could see that he was bad for the district, that his leadership style was that of intimidation. We appealed to the school board because they were his employers but they didn’t listen to us. As a matter of fact, they seemed to be on board with it. To us it seemed like it might have to do with the campaign funding they were receiving from contractors. If you look at the records and see the amount of money that [former SUHSD board president] Jim Cartmill got and [former board trustee] Arlie Ricasa got and so on, you’ll see that they got more than $10,000 from contractors who they had given contracts to. Jesus Gandara in some cases facilitated that. So we knew we had to replace the school board.
How did you go about trying to change things on the Sweetwater board initially?
We tried to recall [the trustees] but we saw that 18,000 signatures was just way too much for a small group to collect. We collected close to 9,000 [signatures] during the 90-day period. We went to Bonitafest and Chula Vista’s Lemon Festival and door to door but there just wasn’t enough manpower for the volunteers that we had.
So we knew that we could collect 1,000 signatures to petition the San Diego County Office of Education, so that’s what we did.
Tell me about the meeting when the San Diego Board of Education came to Sweetwater.
The atmosphere was very supportive. There was absolutely no one in the room who was opposed to the establishment of areas of representation. The reaction of the crowd was very rewarding to me because there was a lot of work prior to that point, like the investigation, how to go about petitioning.
What was the biggest challenge in this process?
I don’t know if there was a most difficult part because we always knew it was the right thing to do. Because of our experience with the recall we felt pretty confident that we would be able to get the signatures necessary. I believe that the San Diego County Board of Education was waiting for some way to get involved at Sweetwater but they had no legal means to get involved. This gave them the excuse to get involved.
Were there any strong supporters or dissenters?
[Assemblywoman] Lorena Gonzalez was very key and instrumental in making this happen and [previous board member] Jaime Mercado, of course. Also the Sweetwater Education Association voted as a group to take this on and make this happen.
The only opposition [that] came in was at the very last meeting when they already said that they were going to do it. At the very last meeting, the mayor of National City came in opposing the whole process and they told him, “You’re kind of late for that.”
What was his reason?
He said that he, the mayor of Chula Vista and [the] mayor of Imperial Beach had no idea that any of this was taking place. Lora Duzyk, [assistant superintendent of business services], said that emails went out to every mayor and city council member in the district, in the area, informing them of all these meetings, and what more can we do if they don’t open their emails? So they were either incompetent or lying. I have a theory about that – I think [former Superintendent Edward] Brand put them up to it, but I have no proof.
What was your intent in trying to change the way Sweetwater does its elections?
My intention was to get representation on the west side [of Chula Vista]. I live on the west side and teach on the west side. At that time all the trustees were from the east side, a small group of people on the east side could control the school board.
Why did you think that the west side of Chula Vista needed representation?
The west side is the old Chula Vista and the east side is the new Chula Vista. The new Chula Vista tends to have people with higher income, higher education and more likely to vote. So what’s going to happen is that if it takes 1,000 votes to elect a school board member and if you have 1,000 people on the east side, they could elect all five of the trustees because it was open and they just spoke for the five they want and those five are going to win, even if you have 900 on the west side voting for someone else. So now by dividing it up, the people of Imperial Beach and South San Diego have a voice. Even if it’s only 100 of them, it’s their voice in that area, which directly affects them.
How do you think this election process will help with transparency?
I suppose there’s always going to be a way for people to be corrupt and take advantage of their position but it’ll help transparency in that now there are contribution limits, like the case of Cartmill. In the 2010 election he collected $110,000 from contributors. … That’s an incredible amount of money. Eighty thousand of it was from contractors. How do you hold a contractor accountable when things don’t go well and the construction starts to fall apart when you’ve taken that much money from them?
Why do you think this kind of election process will work for Sweetwater?
It’s made Sweetwater more democratic. Like in my example, 1,000 people from the east side cannot control the school board. The school board will now be up to the trustee that lives there. Four out of the five last trustees lived within a few miles of each other.
What are some of your thoughts now that this election is getting closer?
To come full circle of why I got involved in the first place, the morale of Sweetwater and its employees under Gandara was very low and continued under Brand. I’m very optimistic that a new school board and a new superintendent will turn the ship around. If you look at Sweetwater as a factory and the employees are unhappy, do you expect productivity to be high? Well, this isn’t much different. If the employees are happy, then things are going to be much better.