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Sweetwater School Board To Discuss Future Of Embattled Superintendent

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Sweetwater Union High School District Superintendent Jesus Gandara is under fire after questions have been raised about his use of a district credit card and other questionable management practices. The Sweetwater school board will hold a closed-session meeting tonight to discuss how to respond to the superintendent's actions. We speak to the Watchdog Editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune about their ongoing investigation into the district.


Ricky Young, watchdog editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune

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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.

CAVANAUGH: A south bay school beard meets to decide the fate of its embattled superintendent. San Diego renews its love affair with libraries. This is the KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Today is Monday, June 20th. Later this hour, San Diego's library director talks to us about the successful effort to save library hours in the San Diego City budget. And a San Diego man makes good with a new TV series about being young, broke, and beautiful. But we begin with a big meeting planned in the Southbay late this afternoon. The board of the Sweetwater Union High School District meets to review the performance of district superintendent Jesus Gandara. He's been under fire for alleged misuse of district credit cards and accusations about potential ethical violations and accepting gifts from vendors. In addition the sweet water high school district is also under renew and investigation for accused lapses, including changed grades and questionable public relations bills. Joining me is the editor of the San Diego Union Tribune Watch Dog Unit which initially raised many of these issues, Ricky Young. Hi Ricky.

YOUNG: Good afternoon, Maureen. It's great to be here.

CAVANAUGH: What prompted the Watch Dog unit to investigate Sweetwater superintendent Jesus Gandara?

YOUNG: Well, a lot of these kinds of stories are in partnership with the community. And we got tips, basically, early on there were a lot of dissatisfied people, quite frankly I don't think this would be a surprise to the district or anyone else. A couple of recently retired teachers, who had been to School Board meetings and raised some your issues that weren't getting a lot of traction. But we started looking into them. And it has sort of snow balled now, where wee getting a lot of tips about a lot of different things about this 1st District. I'll be honest. We've thought a lot about whether these kinds of things might be going on across the county. But really the density of the tips right now is coming from Sweetwater in times of education issues for us to investigate. And it started with some things that were sort of colorful or interesting like the superintendent inviting vendors and employees to a bridal shower for his daughter where they had a money tree where you could attach money to it for her. A lot of people thought that was sort of questionable for people who had things to gain from winning the superintendent's favor. There was the credit card thing you mentioned. He has $800 a month under his contract that he is to use for meals and other expenses, and yet was billing hundreds of meals to a district credit card separately.

CAVANAUGH: Let's break this down. And let's start with that credit card. Because that's one of the things that your Watch Dog Institute has written about and actually sort of -- it's actually panned out at this point. So what was the problem with the superintendent charging meals on this district credit card in addition to -- but coupled with the fact that he already had an expense account?

YOUNG: The issue was that the expense -- let me clarify just briefly. I know we caused this confusion a little bit. The watch dog team is separate from the watch doing institute.

CAVANAUGH: Sorry about that.

YOUNG: Which is here on campus, and they're friends of ours. But it is separate. We looked at what his credit card bills for hundreds of meals which he was charging to the district directly even though he was paid $800 a month under this contract for the purpose of meals and other expenses. A lot of people thought that was a double dipping situation.

CAVANAUGH: How much did he charge on the credit card?

YOUNG: I think it was 11,000 in meals in the time period we looked at which a lot of people thought not so much a lot of money compared to the problems this district and every other district is having with their budget. But it was just the idea that he was billing it on top of being paid 800 bucks a month for expenses like meals, which I don't get that much in my paycheck just to cover meals and you probably don't either.

CAVANAUGH: What happened when the watch dog team asked these questions about this to Sweetwater district?

YOUNG: Sure, well, the superintendent at first said that this was part of a board mandated community outreach effort, that they wanted him to press the flesh with people in the community, and he found that people in the community, the best time they could meet was meal time. And I think he also kind of thought that this was a nice personal way to interact with the community. That's what he said at first. Now we went back and then got the bills that actually enumerated who he had lunched with.

YOUNG: Most of the time it was the School Board. I forget now. Maybe 250 out of 300 meals were with School Board members, including 92 meals with one of them. Then you start to wonder, well, is that really a community outreach effort so much as kind of a job security thing? If you use district taxpayer money to take your bosses to lunch enough, maybe they'll keep you on. .

CAVANAUGH: Had the board voted to take that credit card away?

YOUNG: There was no vote. John McCann who is the school board president mutually agreed to cancel the credit card. The superintendent said at the time, well, that'll mean less outreach with the community. We'll have to have people in for coffee and water instead of going to nice lunches with them. And I think as I said, it turned out maybe the community wasn't getting so much water and coffee after -- they weren't getting the meals after all.

CAVANAUGH: Another thick you mentioned was that bridal shower for he saw Gandara's daughter who I believe lives in Texas.

YOUNG: She does. A lot of people thought that was a little questionable. Normally you'd have a shower for some of your friends locally or what not. She's not from San Diego. She doesn't have family here other than doctor Gandara. And so I think there was some question of the dad throwing her the bridal shower locally and inviting people who have something to gain from winning his favor.

CAVANAUGH: Has anyone on the board brought up the ethics or questioned the ethics of some of these things that have gone on and that you've been reporting on?

YOUNG: We met with John McCan, the president of the School Board last week. He's clearly taking these things very seriously. He's not necessarily defending the superintendent. He put the item on tonight's agenda to evaluate his performance. There were people that wanted that worded a little more strongly on the agenda. They wanted an agenda calling to fire the superintendent. I don't think that McCan or the School Board as a whole is going there. They have to go through some due process. They have to consider for instance that there's a sizable severance in his contract, the 18 months of pay, it would cost the district like $500,000 to fire the guy. There's a lot they have to consider. I think the stuff we've written about has raised a number of concerns about ethics that have troubled some School Board members and the community.

CAVANAUGH: And it isn't just the superintendent that's been the target of some of the tips that have come to you from the Sweetwater district. Another watch dog unit report showed that the district is reviewing the transcripts of students at castle park high school after the UT was presented officials with documents that grades were improperly increased. What is all this about?

YOUNG: Last fall, a lot of students got Fs and Ds. They were given a chance during this past spring break to bring those grades up. The process for that is called credit recovery. And what they're supposed to do is take the credit recovery crass and enter the grade from that into their transcript but leave the failing or poor grade from last fall in the transcript as well. That's what the district policy calls for. Now, what was happening at castle park was they would take the credit recovery class in the spring, then they would go and quote unquote correct the grade from last fall. So they would have another teacher sign off correcting the grade that a teacher had given last fall and making it disappear from the contract -- from the transcript. That's not how it was supposed to happen. Both grades are supposed to stay in the transcript because state law is pretty clear that when a teacher gives a grade, unless there's like a math problem or something discovered, they're not supposed to go and change that grade.

CAVANAUGH: What would be the motivation federal disappearing that failing grade?

YOUNG: There are certain requirements under federal law that look very closely at graduation rates. And kids who are getting Fs are having a hard time graduating. So to just wipe the F away like that, it would help them with their graduation rate and with their performance under the federal no child left behind act.

CAVANAUGH: How does the district response to that allegation?

YOUNG: They say that it was an honest mistake. The principal just used the wrong form there, Diego Ochoa. He's an honest guy, a forthright guy, they say, and this was just an honest mistake. Oops, he used the wrong form, that he was supposed to use this credit recovery form but instead he used that grade change form and he wasn't supposed to. He's a very popular principal, a lot of people have stepped up for him. I think you'll see a lot of them at the meeting tonight, speaking up for him and the superintendent. But again, it raises some broader issues where in principal was just promoted into a central office position overseeing other principals. And there are people who are saying, well, if the guy neither cheated or department not which forms to fill out, 'cause those are kind of your two options, should he really be supervising other principals?

CAVANAUGH: In addition there is also another investigation, which one by the county DA, if I'm not mistaken. It's very complicated. It's about payments to a public relation firm. Can you put that in a nutshell for us?

YOUNG: Sure the district's law firm hired a PR guy has part of their labor notions. And he submitted bills to the law firm that were paid by the distract that listed everything that he did at $250 an hour to earn his PR pay. We went through those bills and called the people who he met with, listed on the bills, and in a remarkable number of instances, they either didn't remember meeting with him at all, or they said they met with him or said they never discussed anything to do with the Sweetwater schools, even though the bills said they were discussing the Sweetwater schools. There were people who said they might have met him for a few minutes and he billed for two hours, which is a lot of tax payer money. So there were a number of problems with the bills to the point where you say the District Attorney's Office is investigating that.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Has your unit found any linkage between these -- among these allegations? It the superintendent and the grading and this PR thing?

YOUNG: Well, we're trying to establish how much of it has to do with the leadership at the top. Ultimately has John McCann, the School Board president, said to us last week, he's ultimately responsible for all of this stuff. But what we've puzzled over is, the guy's been there five or six years I think. How much of this is really his responsibility? Was there a culture that was there before? Some of this, like the grade changing, he's definitely put an emphasis on student achievement, improving grades, test scores. How much of that is his setting the bar of we want to improve, and some people are on their own violation may be cutting some corn uppers or doing some things that achieve that goal in a way he wouldn't be happy with. So we don't really know because he doesn't talk to us too much since some of the early stories ran. But there are certainly ways to look at it where you wouldn't think he is corrupt or even his administration is. There might be just some isolated incidents.

CAVANAUGH: At the meeting, at the Sweetwater district -- High School District tonight, what options does the board have?

YOUNG: I'm not a hundred percent sure of all their options. I think they could basically put them on leave while they investigate which I might be the thing most likely to pass for the people who want to do something about this.

CAVANAUGH: Superintendant Gandara.

YOUNG: Right. They could also just kinda talk about him and agree to talk about him later, which is sometimes how government outright. They could fire him outright, although as I said would cost the district a fair amount of severance pay. And those are I think the options.

CAVANAUGH: Do you expect a large public gathering? Is this going to be in a Venn view that's going to accommodate a lot of people?

YOUNG: The last few meetings, there have been more people there than fit in the room at the district headquarters. And there was a cry for a bigger venue, and they've gotten that now. Southwest high will be the meeting site tonight at six. And I think that as I mentioned, there'll be I think some supporters of Diego Ochoa from castle park, some supporters of Gandara, but then also I think some community members have been upset by the rev lazes. So there may be a few number of them as well. I think it'll be a good turnout, and maybe an even turnout.

CAVANAUGH: We will be reporting that as well you tomorrow. I've been speaking with the editor of the San Diego Union Tribune watch dog unit, Ricky Young. Thanks Ricky.

YOUNG: Thanks for having me.


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