It was a simple gesture yet one with a seemingly profound affect.
When Chula Vista Mayor Cheryl Cox convened a community meeting Wednesday to discuss the state and future of Sweetwater Union High School District — a bedraggled tomcat of a governing board comprised of four temporary board members, a retiring superintendent and a board president seeking greener pastures at City Hall — the 100 or so people gathered probably didn’t know what to expect.
Billed as a community conversation, the meeting at times felt like a marketing focus group survey.
The public had been asked what words they associated with effective high school leadership and what qualities they wanted to see in a new school board. Printed in a word cloud on back of the night’s agenda were some of the choices: transparent, ethical, integrity, competent.
The question could have easily been “What do you want to see in a new sports utility vehicle? (versatility, reliability, economy, MPG, flashy).
Nevertheless as the evening progressed there was a palpable optimism that drifted through the room. As one after another parents, teachers and fed up members of the public were asked to describe the qualities they valued in leaders, a sense of ownership and hope pervaded.
The school district has been a back alley mess for a while. Some people who follow school politics say the culture of corruption predates the Jesus Gandara era. Be that as it may, the chaos is just now being sorted out and with elections to determine a new set of unsullied board members on the horizon, there was a sense Wednesday night that things could be better, that the public will have a meaningful say in who represents them on the school board and that the sins of the past won’t be repeated.
But it’s one thing to talk about the perfect board member/superintendent and it’s another to work within an imperfect system.
Part of that system involves elections. You can describe and ask for all you want in a candidate for school board, but outside of campaign literature and candidate forums — where savvy candidates know what to say without saying anything — how will you know which candidates are genuinely ethical and competent? And likely to stay that way? Perhaps even more importantly, will enough people turn out to vote to select the right people? And will they attend all the school board meetings? Not just this year, but the year after that and the year after that? The mess at Sweetwater wasn’t created in just a blink and it will take more than a few years to clean it up. Will the public have the dedication to see that happen? I hope so. Otherwise their wish list will be nothing more than lofty ideals printed in pretty colors on the back of a forgotten agenda.