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Big Changes, High Hopes For Sweetwater School Board This Election

Sweetwater School Board Election

All five of the Sweetwater Union High School District's Board of Trustee seats are up for grabs in November and many hope the new candidates will bring a fresh start to a district plagued with corruption scandals.

The scandals involving the Sweetwater board of trustees began to unfold almost three years ago. Jill Galvez is a Chula Vista voter and former city council candidate. She said the entire district is still recovering from the humiliation.

“Our community has a black eye because of our crooked board members,” Galvez said. “It’s been an embarrassment, frankly, for the whole South Bay.”

Galvez remembered when the District Attorney found evidence former board members took gifts from contractors in exchange for lucrative development deals. The “pay-to-play” scandal resulted in the removal of almost all Sweetwater school board trustees.

“There were felony charges. A former superintendent got jail time at Sweetwater,” Galvez said. “Five Sweetwater board members: Greg Sandoval was the first, then Arlie Ricasa, then Pearl Quinones, then Jim Cartmell, then Bertha Lopez - all pleaded guilty to various degrees of corruption.”

Each trustee seat has its own geographic area.

Area 1 is the north western part of Chula Vista, Chula Vista High is in this area.

Area 2 straddles the 805 and has Hilltop middle and high school.

Area 3 is the upper middle class east side of Chula Vista with Eastlake High and Olympian High.

Area 4 goes from the border through San Ysidro into Chula Vista and has Castle Park High.

Area 5 runs from Imperial Beach to the south western part of Chula Vista, it has Marvista and Montgomery high schools.

Map of the Sweetwater school district and how each of its new 5 areas are drawn.

Then, because all but one seat on the Sweetwater board was vacant, the San Diego County Board of Education stepped in and appointed people to fill the empty trustee seats. The county board also changed how the Sweetwater school board is elected.

Voters used to vote for all the open school board seats, no matter where they lived in the massive Sweetwater school district. Now each seat has its own geographic area. Anywhere from three to six candidates are vying for each spot on the board.

Will Voters Understand The Significance Of This Race?

Chula Vista Mayor Cheryl Cox said voters could easily get overwhelmed and confused with the number of candidates running for each individual seat.

“Those who vote may be in the same situation as when you and I vote for judge,” she said.

The candidates who win will face plenty of challenges, Cox said. The district owes $31 million because of a land purchase it made in 2005, and its graduation rate is only about 82 percent.

“Problems we’ve got plenty of, it’s solutions we need,” Cox said.

Adrian Audel moved to Chula Vista just as the scandal was unfolding. He said it’s tough keeping up with politics.

“Most people either don’t have the time or don’t want to put that time or effort into understanding politics at any level,” he said.

L.J. Livingston is a Chula Vista mother. She said the only tool most people have is the candidate’s ballot statement.

“You open up that pamphlet and you’re reading it, you’re reading their statement, and this is pretty much all the voter, general people, are going to get - is that pamphlet,” Livingston said.

Grandmother Catalina Silva doesn’t remember the scandal and doesn’t know how to tell one candidate from another.

“They all say they are honest, they all say they are special they all say they equipped to do the job,” Silva said.

Photo caption: Sweetwater school district board of trustees candidates at a forum. From left...

Photo by Matthew Bowler

Sweetwater school district board of trustees candidates at a forum. From left: Tino Martinez, Felipe Nuño, Nicholas Segura and Valley Colman.

Candidates At Area 4 Forum

At an Area 4 election forum, almost as many spectators as candidates attended. Sweetwater’s new Area 4 goes from the border through San Ysidro into the heart of Chula Vista. Each candidate is running on a similar platform: transparency, accountability, honesty. It’s their personalities that are different.

Candidate Valley Colman thinks his take on financial issues make him the one voters need.

“This district has nothing I want to steal from. The only thing I want to do is bring down some responsibility and have the people know where their money’s at,“ Colman said.

Felipe Nuño thinks the district should be focusing on schools west of the 805.

“The majority of our schools are on this side, the majority of our people are on this side. Why are we moving our central offices far away, where most people cannot reach it?” Nuño said.

Nicholas Segura wants your vote because he believes he’s more open minded and independent than his competition.

“What you need to do is be able to listen to people, the community, be able to listen to the superintendent and to do your own research on things, not just be listening to one person and doing what they say,” Segura said.

Smacking his hand to show how strict his upbringing was, candidate Tino Martinez said his father instilled a sense of ethics in him that he’ll take to the board.

“With my father there was no such thing as ADHD, none of that stuff - none of that. It went away. So I will take the ethics training but I don't need it,” Martinez said.

Voting By The Numbers

Mayor Cox said last February’s primary election had about 19 percent voter turn out in Chula Vista. She theorized a small group of people could end up making the decision for everyone.

“One candidate could win with 21-22 percent of the vote. And if 19 percent of your registered voters are turning out to vote, you really whittled that configuration of support,” Cox said. “It’s really difficult to configure the word landslide.”

The San Diego County Registrar of Voters shows each of Sweetwater’s new areas has about 90 thousand people living in it, and of them, about 39 thousand are registered voters. If Cox is correct and fewer than 20 percent of the voters show up at the polls, the winner could be chosen by as few as 1,600 people.

The mayor would like this big decision to be made by more of Sweetwater school district’s voters. But she hopes the few that do vote will continue to pay attention to the work the trustees do, after the election.

“We have to hope that the voters, the representatives, and constituents here are paying attention to the decisions that are made at school district meetings,” Cox said.

The Sweetwater board’s decisions will affect more than 41,000 South Bay high school students.

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