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The Roundtable: Fixing Sweetwater Union High School District

Will a leadership change fix the Sweetwater Union High School District's problems? Late Tuesday night, the Sweetwater school board terminated the contract of Superintendent Jesus Gandara after a series of San Diego Union-Tribune stories questioned some of his management practices. Sweetwater has appointed an interim superintendent, who has pledged to address the district's problems in his first 30 days. We discuss what has plagued Sweetwater in recent months, and what can be done to get the district back on track.

Will a leadership change fix the Sweetwater Union High School District's problems? Late Tuesday night, the Sweetwater school board terminated the contract of Superintendent Jesus Gandara after a series of San Diego Union-Tribune stories questioned some of his management practices. Sweetwater has appointed an interim superintendent, who has pledged to address the district's problems in his first 30 days. We discuss what has plagued Sweetwater in recent months, and what can be done to get the district back on track.


JW August, managing editor of 10News

Tony Perry, San Diego Bureau Chief for the Los Angeles Times

Mark Sauer, KPBS Senior News Editor

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ST. JOHN: When he joined the Sweetwater around at his previous job. This week, he saw Gandara was fired by the School Board. but that's usually because of some kind of difference of opinion about how to run the district. This case is different. There is evidence of ethical breaches, cronyism, misuse of public funds. We're very open to your opinions and insights on this issue. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. Give us a call if you have any questions or information to add to the discussion. What do you think about the decision to fire Gandara? What do you think the Sweetwater school district needs? 1-888-895-5727.

So JW, you've done quite a few stories on Sweetwater in the past.

AUGUST: Over the year, yeah.

ST. JOHN: Fill us in. Why was the superintendent fired.

AUGUST: It was because of a series of stories by the watch dog at the UT. Ashley McGlond, a young reporter, very good young reporter there at the paper began to peel back a lot of things. I think they got the scent when the state came down, and there were some issues with their special Ed program, and they began investigative reporting and began peeling things back and finding things like running up 12 grand on a credit card for meals and things like that. And it slowly evolved. I think a great deal of the parents in the district were getting ticked off too. And this momentum built.

ST. JOHN: He had an allowance for meals but he was still charging the school district for meals.

AUGUST: Correct. If that had been the only thing, this might have slipped by. But there were other things that were reported.

ST. JOHN: Mark you were mentioning his daughter's wedding.

SOUR: A bridal shower for his daughter where contractors who dealt with district business were invited and expected to add to this money tree which smacks of a shakedown, and he responded to that saying, Eon they just wanted to celebrate the joy of our family. Well, huh. I don't know how joyous that is if you're expected to peel off some bills for the superintendent.

ST. JOHN: And Tony, you're chuckling there. Apparently he did manage to raise student test scores. I don't know how familiar you are with the story. Isn't that the most important mark of success in a superintendent?

PERRY: It is. And once again -- and I applaud the work done by Jeff Danon at the watch dog. There is a split between what goes on in the classroom, and what goes on in the administrative offices of the School Board. Covering the one is not covering the other. There isn't much as I can tell -- nexus.

ST. JOHN: Oops, looks like we lost Tony. We may have to come back to him. There are two sides to this. And one of my questions is whether in fact it's the economy that is bringing all this to the surface now because the cuts at the district is making everybody much more aware of the way we spend money.

AUGUST: And a lot of reporting's being done about pensions and payrolls of people on the public dole. And I think that certainly had something to do with it. But it grinds my teeth that the outgoing superintendent still gets $376, a nice little lump sum, and 40 grand for his vacations that he didn't use. That's a nice little chunk of change.

SOUR: You mean 376,000.

ST. JOHN: 1-888-895-5727 is the number to call. And Sony is on the line. I don't know if I pronounced your name right, but we'd love to have you. Go ahead.

NEW SPEAKER: Did you say sunny?

ST. JOHN: Is that your name? Sunny.

NEW SPEAKER: Yes, thank you so much for taking my call. I wanted to comment on the fact that superintendent Gandara should have been released from his tenure a long time ago. He's given a credit card by the school district that carries a fiduciary responsibility. He is -- needs to be a guardian of the moneys that he spends. And his -- the blatant bridal shower for his daughter should have sent an immediate signal. And I cautioned that the school district was dragging their feet. Well, we don't want to step on anybody's toes.

ST. JOHN: Sunny, these are good points. I have to note you're living in Mission Hills. Do you have personal experience with the Sweetwater school district that is in the Southbay.

NEW SPEAKER: I'm a news hound.

SOUR: We love news hounds.

ST. JOHN: Fair enough. You're raising a good point. Even the San Diego taxpayers' association awarded its gold know fleece, ward to the district. That's a back handed award for government waste and accepted the award, noting they'd taken away the superintendent's credit card. But JW, do you think that that's enough? Is it just the superintendent? Was there some responsibility elsewhere? Is there --

AUGUST: Well, excuse me if I rapt a little bit. Sweetwater is a big school district. But over the years, I think I've heard and read and seen more complaints about that district. I do believe they have a culture there that they have real issues with. Especially the upper management. You'll find a lot of parents and teachers will tell you that it's a culture of concealment. They like to hide things. They don't like things coming out into public. They will do everything they can to put obstacles in your way to find out information about the district because they have this sort of culture where they feel like it's their business not your business. And I guarantee you, there's a lot of teachers and parents who would say the same thing when trying to deal with the Sweetwater unified --

ST. JOHN: School district. Okay. You're talking about a culture. And it's interesting that they have actually appointed the previous superintendent, Ed Brand, who Gandara replaced .

AUGUST: That was not a radical decision. That sounds like it sounds like the School Board is going along and playing the same game they always do. I have some concerns about their School Board and Mr. McCann because I don't think they're demonstrating leadership. Mr. Brand left San Marcos under circumstances we're not clear about. How he's returning. When he was here before, there were issues with Mr. Brand. He did some good things. But he did other things that raised some questions. I remember we did a story when the Chula Vista school caught on fire. I think it was Chula Vista middle school. And it caught on fire and they built a new administration before building classrooms. To me that shows a kind of a lack of judgment.

ST. JOHN: Okay. Apparently the county grand jury back in 2003, during his tenure, faulted him for not completing renovations promised in the bomb measure. And he also had some issues with the credit cards too. Back in those days there wasn't so much concern about budgets. So it seems like that was maybe par for the course. I'm wondering whether Jesus Gandara has fallen victim of the fact that people are just much, much more aware now of how public funds are spent.

AUGUST: And I think the reporting's improved and gotten more aggressive in watching that district.

ST. JOHN: Stewart is calling us from Chula Vista which is in the district. Thanks for calling, Stewart.

NEW SPEAKER: Thank you for taking my call. My comment was I've been watching this district for quite some time. And Jesus Gandara is really just one problem. The other problem is the let me firm who is paid $83,000 per month and then they charge above and beyond that for other things to credit services on the proposition O bond program. It's also important to note that these School Board members have some responsibility here as well. And these School Board members, at least three of them in the past election took significant campaign donations from these same contractors that are working on this bond. This district is being controlled by contractors. At that time the superintendent Gandara as well as Garcia who is the head legal counsel from TCR.

ST. JOHN: Okay, Stewart, thank you for that perspective. We were also sent some videotape of recent board meetings that shows the pot is really boiling in the Sweetwater district in terms of the†People's feelings about the board. And of course, you know, a lot of school districts do engender quite a bit of hot politics. But in this case, in fact it might be a good thing that the economy now is getting tight and people are paying more attention and the media is really getting on the case is discovering this kind of thing. Mark?

SOUR: If they are watching the public funds so closely, the superintendent ought to know that and realize we're in a spotlight situation here and you've got to change your ways accordingly.

AUGUST: It's not five beta kappa to me.

ST. JOHN: JW, the fact that we've got Ed Brand coming back, do -- and the reason then apparently a member of the San Marcos School Board was quoted as saying it was his style as much as anything was the reason that he separated from San Marcos after just a year. Is this sending a message to the people leading our school districts about --

AUGUST: Business as usual. That's what they're saying. Stewart who spoke, by the way, he was one of the more outspoken parents and was -- he was at the meetings when they asked the superintendent to resign, which I think points to the importance of people whose children are in the schools need to be very involved and watch what's going on.

ST. JOHN: There were some issues mark about contracts. It raised questions about whether there was a sort of cronyism going on in the district.

SOUR: Absolutely. You've got public funds here, great deals of money, brick and mortar projects with school districts here. And you simply have to do this on an up and up bid basis, an objective above board, let the sunshine in basis. You can't have personal relationships and winks and nods and social situations here where people are favored. That is absolute abuse of the public trust.

ST. JOHN: 1-888-895-5727. Tony, I know you are back with us there on the phone. Go ahead.

SOUR: Finish your rant, Tony.

PERRY: My point is, and again as an outsider, and great work by channel ten and the watch dog from the Union Tribune, is that there is a tendency of executives in these public positions after a while want to have the flexibility, the freedom of what they think to be how CEO's of private companies operate the high fire lawyers and to have perks and run over the authority that is the of the trustees. The but it can't happen in a public setting. The need for transparency, candor, and to watch the public purse is a lot more than in private. At some point I think some of these folks think, hey, if I was on the outside, I'd be the CEO of ABC company, whatever, and I'd be given all this flexibility, and I'd make more money, etc. So really they're lucky to have me so I'm gonna do all these things, unilaterally, in my public position and they get caught. And suddenly they have to go. Whether or not the actual product, in this case the education, has been harmed by it, the personal aggrandizement is unacceptable in a public position.

SOUR: Pride before the fall.

PERRY: Indeed.

ST. JOHN: And there's also some issues with for meetings that according to the watch dog even never happened or happened differently. Sort of slopping billing.

AUGUST: I think the DA snooping around on that within, and maybe is with some other issues.

ST. JOHN: Raul is making a point following Tony Perry about student achievement. Go ahead.

NEW SPEAKER: In this $300†million public agency which is the school district, very little attention is being made on the lack of student achievement. Over 30 to 40†percent of the students are being -- are testing at what is known as far public basic. This is a severe lowering or under educating of a huge population of students. That seems not to be as fancy as the other stuff. I'm not saying it's not important. The challenge here for all of us is to focus on what's really damaging, a 300 or million dollar investment on an annual basis on a school district that is not doing what it needs to be doing for student achievement.

ST. JOHN: Thank you for that comment. I have read that in fact student achievement had risen to some degree under superintendent Gandara. Do you have any insights into that?

NEW SPEAKER: If you're going from a D minus to at a D plus, I don't think it's an accomplishment to be talking about. Gandara and some others in the district pride themselves and certain gains that they're making. But in making comparisons in other school districts with similar populations, the challenge is that we're not getting our money's worth. And we need to start talking about changing the paradigm of that public school district. Because the student, if he's spending time dining and going to parties and contractors and all of that, he's not focusing on being the chief academic officer. And that's what we need in the new leader that takes over in that district.

ST. JOHN: Thank you for your call, Raul. We also had a calls from Susan who didn't want to go on the air who wonders if something was on the superintendent's contract to fire him for cause with financial indiscretion. Because instead of settling with him, why didn't they just fire with him? I'm not sure if you know the answer to that.

AUGUST: I don't either.

SOUR: Maybe those attorneys who are getting some $80,000 a month could answer that.

ST. JOHN: Alpine, we have a call from Alpine now. Al is on the line. Thanks for joining the round table. Go ahead.

NEW SPEAKER: I have two comments. I really don't understand what superintendents have to do with raising test scores as much as the teachers and the students do. And second is about the pay, yeah, I don't understand why school districts still have to pay somebody when unethical behavior occurs. I think it's sad and a same that we have a saying like we say things like oh, it's all politics. We shouldn't have a saying like that.

ST. JOHN: Very good point. I think what you do is broaden this discussion out because everybody who has a kid in public school is concerned about whether any of this kind of style to put it mildly is affecting their district also. So JW, is this the end of the story?

AUGUST: No, it's more to go. I think there is a culture of concealment. Unless somebody really shakes that place up, we're gonna keep seeing problems coming out of the closet until something really happens to make folks down there wake up and realize we gotta change things around down here.

ST. JOHN: Okay. Coming up in the next segment, wee gonna change topics here. Stay tuned of the president has kept his cards close to his chest about pulling troops out of Afghanistan for a very good reason. There are strong feels for and against. This week he outlined his details of a plan for a drawdown. how will they be affected by the withdrawal of thousands of troops from Afghanistan? Stay with us. We're coming back right after this break.

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