It is no secret the Sweetwater Union High School District is in serious financial trouble. In the past year, Voice of San Diego has published over 21 articles documenting the misdeeds and allegations of fraud, accounting irregularities and simply spending beyond its means. This district is no small potato, with a student population of nearly 40,000. That is almost double the size of the city of Coronado.
The stories of the Sweetwater Way are legendary: They include a superintendent who hired his son’s business to deliver pizza to cafeterias, having a cafeteria manager buy her own business’s products and lobster dinners for the superintendent paid for by the consultant to the bond program.
The County Office of Education found that unless Sweetwater makes major adjustments, the district will not be able to continue operations as presently structured. How did this happen? Was it by accident, bad luck or was the district a victim of circumstances beyond its control?
The answer is hell no. There is an adage, “Nothing in government happens by chance.” Sweetwater has a long history of doing things a certain way. Poor internal controls, lax record-keeping, hiding mistakes, ignoring problems or hoping they would go away and fiscal sleight of hand to mask over underlying structural financial problems have been the Sweetwater Way for years.
A new board was elected in 2014, along with the appointment of a new superintendent. Hopes were high for change after a well-known corruption scandal. So why is the situation even worse now? In a nutshell:
- The root cause of the Sweetwater financial mess is the ingrained bureaucratic culture, which did not change nearly enough with the election of the new board.
- Outside forces have clouded the judgement of the board to the detriment of sound financial decisions.
- Up until recently, the County Office of Education was anemic in its fiscal oversight function.
- The district marched ahead with “business as usual” actions despite warnings from outside experts and concerns by the community regarding fiscal management.
In 2012, even prior to the election of the new board, the interim CFO warned, “We will have a negative fund balance, meaning we will have more obligations than we have assets,” according to the San Diego Reader.
The state’s Fiscal Crisis Management Assessment Team also warned: “Unless revenue is increased, the district will need to implement expenditure reductions to balance its general fund budget and remain fiscally solvent.”
Imagine you are a business and your source of revenue, or in this case total student population, is going down over time. Would you hire more teachers who have some of the highest average salaries in the county? Would you give pay raises to staff of over 13 percent over a five-year period? How about increasing your central administrative staff by over 35 percent?
A school district needs to be run like a business and educational institution. As we are painfully aware, if you don’t have the resources, many of the good ideas to better educate students go unfilled.
Where do we go from here? It is time for everyone with a stake in this situation to work together with honesty, forthrightness, listening, cooperation and most importantly to bury the hatchet that has emerged between those in the community, the employees, the County Office of Education and the district.
This is not a call for the resignation of Superintendent Karen Janney. She works at the direction of the board, and the last thing we need now is more turmoil with a major management change.
We need an elected leader, preferably a board member, who solely owes their allegiance to a better education and management of district resources to bring us all together. Please find us a leader. I know we can do it, as we have dedicated teachers, employees and community members.
There are 40,000 young students counting on you. Remember there are no do-overs for the high school experience.
Nick Marinovich is chairman of the Sweetwater Union High School District Bond Oversight Committee, a director on the California League of Bond Oversight Committees and a retired San Diego County project manager.