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SPECIAL COVERAGE: Living With Wildfires: San Diego Firestorm 10 Years Later

Public Trust Erodes In Sweetwater School District

SUHSD Superintendent Jesus Gandara has been on the job for about three years.

Photo by Ana Tintocalis

Above: SUHSD Superintendent Jesus Gandara has been on the job for about three years.

Audio

The Sweetwater Union High School District became one of four San Diego county school districts to be placed on a federal watch list under the No Child Left Behind Act. KPBS Education Reporter Ana Tintocalis explains how Sweetwater Superintendent Jesus Gandara has come under fire for the way he's handling reforms.

— The Sweetwater Union High School District is the largest high school district in California. This past year it became one of four San Diego county school districts to be placed on a federal watch list under the No Child Left Behind Act. KPBS Education Reporter Ana Tintocalis explains how Sweetwater Superintendent Jesus Gandara has come under fire for the way he's handling reforms:

Jesus Gandara is credited with turning around largely Latino school districts in Texas. He has described himself as a man of faith who is on a mission.

"I see my role as a superintendent sometimes fighting evil,” Gandara said. “So I carry a blessed Saint Michael's with me, and I carry a Rosary with me."

But lately Gandara has been fighting public mistrust. It's a stark contrast to when he first arrived three years ago. At the time there was a sense of optimism that Gandara was a perfect fit for the district. But now that's turned to anger.

At recent school protests, employees have been heard shouting:

“How long has Gandara been on the job? Too long, right?”

“This superintendent has created a repressive culture and people will continue to speak up.”

“Obviously our school board doesn't understand what is happening.”

The overall dissatisfaction is tied to Gandara's top-down style of management, his spending habits and unresolved contract negotiations. He's also accused of discriminating against female administrators.

Gandara believes the rancor is all about resistance to change.

“Everybody loves change, everyone understands change, everyone will tell you, change has to come, but when it comes to them, they don't like change,” Gandara said.

Gandara has shuffled principals about the districts without community input. And he's demoted two of the highest ranking female administrators. The superintendent defends his decisions.

“There are clicks in this organization and when I hold one of their members in this click accountable, then they're going to react to that.”

However Gandara admits he hasn't focused yet on his vision for academic instruction. Instead he's been caught-up in managing his bricks-and-motor vision of how to spend a more than $600 million school bond.

So now the question is whether Gandara has enough community support to move educational reforms forward. All six employee unions have cast votes of no confidence in him. Organizers say he doesn't know how to build consensus because he comes from Texas where there are no teachers unions.

“Certainly Texas is a unique culture,” says Lynda Skrla, professor of educational administration at Texas A & M University. She studies school districts that beat the odds. She says successful superintendents have to adapt.

“If you're a successful leader in Texas as superintendent and you move to another state, you're model for success really is built on what you knew previously,” Skrla said. “Part of your job is to learn how your new culture is the same as and, different from, the one from which you came. Certainly unions would be a big piece of the equation.”

Skrla says it is possible for an education reformer to make drastic changes without losing the trust and hurting morale. She says the key is to be transparent -- something teacher Jean Chivira says Gandara hasn't done.

“This is where we went to school. Our sisters have gone here. Our children have gone here. We're really tied to the community. And we've seen what this man has done. He's damaged the district where it’s going to take many, many years for us to recover.”

Charles Wilson has sent two of his daughters through the Sweetwater school district.

“(The district) needs the type of shaking up to get things done. But still (the superintendent) has to be able to listen to people.”

Lynda Skrla of Texas A & M says this is a pivotal moment for any superintendent.

“Once the public or school community’s trust for their school leadership has eroded, its extreme difficult to reestablish. And it’s also hard to predict when things are going to go South. Some superintendents can weather storms and remain in tact. Other superintendents lose their effectiveness.”

But Gandara insists he can lead the district out of its internal turmoil to academic success. If he succeeds, it could serve as a model for other struggling Latino school districts. If he doesn't, it could be a blow to the Sweetwater community.

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