Transparency and restoring public trust loomed large on the campaign trail for Sweetwater Union High School District’s new slate of board members.
In fact, all five new trustees said both were top priorities. Just a couple weeks after being sworn in, not all of them are living up to that.
Last month, South Bay voters elected five fresh community faces to represent five different areas in the district.
This was part of the district’s reform efforts in the aftermath of a scandal that left four of the previous five trustees with criminal records and, without seats on the board. It was a “pay-to-play” culture, where trustees accepted lavish gifts in exchange for votes on contracts worth millions.
Now it looks like some trustees are so afraid to say the wrong thing, they’ll barely say anything at all.
All efforts to reach Area 1 representative Arturo Solis went unanswered. When I tried to get his phone number from the district, Manuel Rubio, director of grants and communications for SUHSD, said he couldn’t give out that information. Instead, Rubio said community members could leave messages for the trustees with him.
Solis has been MIA since the beginning of our coverage of this election. Solis never responded to a questionnaire from Voice of San Diego’s Bianca Bruno, even after he asked on Twitter if he could submit answers after the deadline. He did not respond to emails sent to two different emails listed for him on the district website and that he gave the San Diego County Registrar of Voters.
Area 3 representative Frank Tarantino also declined to talk, citing, curiously, the Brown Act, saying that the law prevented him from speaking to media. The Brown Act allows the public to attend meetings of and participate in local government and prohibits local officials from talking about topics discussed in closed meetings. It doesn’t prohibit public officials from speaking with journalists.
Terry Francke, who founded Californians Aware, an organization that specializes in public information rights, says he’s never heard of a board member using the Brown Act to avoid talking to a reporter.
“Sometimes either fellow members or lawyers for these local boards exaggerate the effects of the Brown Act because they don’t want members speaking to press,” Francke said.
Paula Hall, trustee for Area 5, told me about the obstacles this board has to tackle, but when I asked her what goals she had for the new board – a basic question – she said she’d rather keep that to herself.
Kevin Pike was the only board member who gave candid answers about his concerns for the new board.
But transparency isn’t the only major hurdle the new board has to clear. Here’s a look at the load this board will take on.
After the long and messy scandal where 15 people faced charges, it’s a challenge, to say the least, to restore public trust.
Two convicted trustees ran for seats this election but were defeated.
“I think it’s a breath of fresh air,” Pike said. “People were tired of all the corruption and scandal going on and they wanted to put people in those positions that they felt were going to do the best job.”
Pike is hopeful the new election rules, in which trustees are voted in by area, will help that process.
Paula Hall said one way to restore trust involves constant connection to the community, and being aware of the issues, not just in their own areas but across the district.
Bringing Equity to Sweetwater Schools
Throughout Chula Vista, communities don’t feel represented by their district. That’s one of the reasons the district was split into five areas to ensure equal representation across the district.
Hall said there’s a lot to do when it comes to bringing equity to all schools. The public feels strongly about fixing up the schools that have been neglected for the past 25 years, Hall said.. It’s important to turn these schools into “facilities we can be proud of that are safe and support the programs for the different communities,” Hall said.
Hiring a New Superintendent
After the pay-to-play scandal landed former Superintendent Jesus Gandara in jail, and his successor Edward Brand was caught accepting a pension at the same time he was being paid to lead the district, the community sorely needs new leadership. The pressure is on to find a superintendent who will be communicative and competent.
Pike said at this point, he can’t see himself supporting a nationwide search.
“The last time they did a national search for a superintendent, he ended up in jail,” he said.
The new hire will replace Tim Glover, who has served in the role on an interim basis since July.
Correction: An earlier version of this post said 15 administrators and members of the Sweetwater board were charged with crimes. The 15 charged included officials from the Sweetwater High School District, the San Ysidro School District and the Southwestern Community College District.