Sweetwater Tries To Recover With New Superintendent
The biggest high school district in San Diego County, the Sweetwater district in the South Bay, is in the midst of damage control right now after the board fired the superintendent, Jesus Gandara, last month and gave him a severance package of around half a million dollars. There was evidence of misuse of public funds and grade tampering, which certainly erodes confidence in claims that academic performance was improving. What is at the root of the problems and Is the district doing enough to right the ship?
Guest: Allison K. Sampite, reporter, The Star News, Chula Vista
After the board fired the superintendent, Jesus Gandara, last months and gave him a severance package of half a million dollars. There was evidence of grade tampering, which certainly erodes confidence that grade performance was improving. Is the district doing enough to write the ship? Our guest is Allison Sampite, reporter with the star news in Chula Vista. Thanks for being with us.
SAMPITE: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
ST. JOHN: I'd also like to put a call out to people, especially from people in the sweet water school district. Do you have a child in the schools there? Do you support the board's actions? Allison, give us a refresh on the problems that face the sweet water high school district in the past few months after conduct by the former superintendent.
SAMPITE: Well, unfortunately there have been a number of controversial issues that I've come over in the last several months within the sweet water union high school district. There have been dozens of articles that have come out in the media since March regarding misuse of a district credit card by former superintendent he sauce Gandara, issues with grade changing on transcript, a bridal shower that the former superintendent hosted for his daughter which was perceived as a controversy by many public members. In addition there was also a controversy with a PR firm that was hired by the district's contract lawyer, CalderÛn Ruiz, and Bonnie Garcia.
ST. JOHN: And there was also problems with the food service director, I understand. What happened there?
SAMPITE: I'm not too familiar, actually with that particular issue. The Union Tribune did do their watch dog did do an excellent job in putting out information with that. But unfortunately I'm not too p.m. with that particular topic.
ST. JOHN: Okay. So some sweet water parents might be wondering if the board of trustees was paying attention during all this time. And what they're doing now, the president of the School Board is John McCann. What kind of a leader is he?
SAMPITE: I think a lot of people in the past have supported John McCann. He was a counsel member for the Chula Vista City Council from 2,002 only 2010. And I believe he did gain a lot of popularity there.
ST. JOHN: He hasn't been on the board for very long. He was only recently elected. Did he run on making changes?
SAMPITE: As far as I know, yes, he did. And I think a lot of people in the public was counting on him coming into the district and making some reform, some I think has, hopefully getting a lot of the issues kind of cleared up with the district. But I think some people were disappointed and feel like he didn't act as quickly as he could have.
ST. JOHN: So there are some items I noticed in the Star news, which is the paper that you write for, which suggest that some parents believe that McCann lied about issues such as investigations into a PR firm. Is there any evidence in that?
SAMPITE: Yes, there is. John McCann, when the watch dog investigative team reported about these issues, John McCan had said that this is an important thing to look into it. And a U.S. district attorney was hired, I believe his name is Greg Vega, to look into these issues, and as far as I know the investigation is still going on. So that's kind of the extent of what I know.
ST. JOHN: And what about the rest of the board? Is it a unified School Board or split as many School Boards are?
SAMPITE: From what I can tell, there are four members who kind of tend be to on the -- seem to be on the same pain and seem to have supported Gandara. Bertha Lopez is one person who has stuck out at least as far as the community's concerned. They kind of have clung to her and felt like she's someone who stood up to support the district, the community, and the students in support of just getting transparency out there, getting the truth out there and doing away with a lot of this negative stuff surrounding the district.
ST. JOHN: 1-888-895-5727 is our number if you'd like to join the program if you have a perspective on the sweet water school district's troubles and how they're being solved. But Allison, from your perspective, how is the community reacting to the board's actions now to write the ship as it were if.
SAMPITE: I believe that most of the community is happy that the district -- that the board did decide to put Jesus Gandara on administrative leave. Ultimately, I do feel like they feel the work is not done. A lot of them are interested in also getting the district's contracted attorney, Bonnie Garcia, also having him come away from the district, they feel like he might also be an issue. And they're interested in kind of starting over and getting a fresh start, and putting the focus back on the students and education.
ST. JOHN: Now, could these problems be part of a district culture? Or is it a feeling that this is unusual, and there were certain individuals responsibly? In other words a few bad apples only?
SAMPITE: From my understanding, it seems like the residents and community members feel like there are a couple bad apples, unfortunately, that are on the board, and they really are looking for a fresh start. New people to come in, people with new perspectives, with the right perspective, which is to put the students in the district first. And that's kind of what they're hoping for.
ST. JOHN: It did cost almost half a million dollars to give he sauce Gandara a severance package. So is there any reaction from the community about that?
SAMPITE: Definitely. I think at first, people were -- we're just really sick of all the issues that were going on. They were fired of it and saying if even if we have to pay nearly half a million dollars, which for the record ended up being 416,000 and some other dollars. But that's a significant sum. And I think at 50, people were willing to say we're willing to eat that money as long as we can get this guy out of here. But now you have people that are disappointed that they are paying taxpayers' money for this guy that they were never really behind to begin with.
ST. JOHN: The board has brought in a familiar face to replace him. Tell us about Ed Brand. Why did he leave in the first place?
SAMPITE: Ed Brand, as many people know, he was a superintendent for the sweet water union high school district from 1995 to 2005. From what I know, he actually -- he made a lot of changes there. He was a part of founding the compact for success, which was a program that enabled students to directly get into San Diego state yesterday. And Ed Brand, they pulled him out of retirement, five-year retirement. Heed he's very happy to come back and serve for the district a second time. And he's really focusing on getting things back on track there. He told me that he left in the first place because he had two kids that were in high school, and he lives up in North County. So he wanted to kind of change -- have a change of geographic location and have his kids get into a school where he could be closer to where they lived.
ST. JOHN: 1-888-895-5727 is the number to call to join us here on the program. Ed Brand has already started to make changes to the people that Gandara appointed to positions of responsibility. Do you think he's doing enough?
SAMPITE: I think Ed Brand has his hands full, you know? He's definitely coming in and doing damage control. And in a way, he has a limited time to do this. Of parents in the community have been wanting change for a while now, and he has a lot of pressure on him to make these changes. One thing that he did say he was going to be doing this summer is holding education summit, where parents and community members can come together and talk about the issues that are going on and express those opinions to him. And then he will take note of that and make sure that all those issues get addressed. Of he told me that he is looking to hopefully have all of those issues addressed by Julyh.
ST. JOHN: So he has made some changes though to? Of the top leadership in the district, I understand.
SAMPITE: From what I understand, yes. Unfortunately I do not know too much about what the challenges were as far as who.
ST. JOHN: But in a sense, parents can see that there are some different people being brought into positions of responsibility, which perhaps is reassuring for them. What else is the district doing to repair its image?
SAMPITE: I would say really that just to repair its image it's just addressing all of the issues and trying to be as transparent as possible. Really, being more proactive, I think Ed is really big with about that. He said that unfortunately there's a lot of things that have kind of gone awry. And he's just looking forward to repairing the image and bringing trust and integrity back to the district so that parents will start to trust the board again.
ST. JOHN: From what I've seen there's been some very acrimonious board meetings, and some pretty angry letters to the newspaper about what's been going on. Do you think that the upset in the community is just a minority down in the south bay, or is this really quite a mood swing that the School Board has to address?
SAMPITE: There are -- the people with the loudest voice are often heard. I would say it's more than just a handful of people. Although there are a handful of people who have been very vocal in the district with regard to the issues that have been going on. Stewart pane is one, he's been very vocal for a while. He is a parent and a community member, and he is very interested in making sure that things are going on correctly at the district. There are also several retired teachers who have come forward to voice their complaints and express their concerns. Unfortunately they feel like they are not able to be backed vocally by some other people who are either current teachers or otherwise fear backlash from the board.
ST. JOHN: What kind of changes are they calling for.
Q. Basically they're calling for kind of a over haul, I think. From what I've heard from certain people they're kind of over this bode. They'd like a clean slate, a fresh start. . They'd like to get rid of Bonnie Garcia who they feel is over paid and --
ST. JOHN: That's the attorney?
SAMPITE: Correct. The attorney.
ST. JOHN: So they'd like to get rid of the attorney. And the board, is it like the whole board or just some of the board that they're unhappy with.
SAMPITE: I think the majority of the board, some people are speaking out enough as board members, I think, and I think that that's not sitting well with some of the parents. They feel like they need to be more outspoken and so what they feel. And I think like I said before, that a lot of the parents do support Bertha Lopez because she has been outspoken without worrying about what kind of backlash she's going to get, that she's the one who's seemingly sticking her income out there no matter what the cost in order to protect the students at the district.
ST. JOHN: She's very much in the minority. And John McCann, the president of the School Board there is, I believe, running again or showing signs of making plans to run for the City Council again. So presumably how he handles this situation is going to be quite important for his political career.
SAMPITE: That's true. And John McCann is someone who obviously -- he's a veteran, and he did serve a year in Iraq from the summer of 2009 to 2010. I think a lot of people respect that. But at the same time, I think there are some people in the community who feel like he's a little bit too outspoken about that and that he needs to focus more on the district or on the issues at hand rather than going back to his service and what he's done. So I think people would like to see a little bit of a change in that.
ST. JOHN: That's Allison Sampite, reporter for the star news of Chula Vista. Thank you so much for bringing us up-to-date on sweet water, Allison.
SAMPITE: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.