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School district holds summit Allison K. Sampite | Sat, Aug 27 2011 12:00 PM

In the last two months, Sweetwater Union High School interim superintendent Dr. Ed Brand has cleaned house.

But he'd tell you he's just doing his job.

"Public education is a worthwhile endeavor," Brand said. "This is a district (the community) should be proud of and it will return to its prior glory."

The district's board voted unanimously in June to terminate former superintendent Jesus Gandara after months of media sctrutiny detailing his use of a district credit card.

On Thursday, Sept. 1, Brand will hold an education summit for parents, students and community leaders to hear the state of the district.

"The only way to operate is to be up front," he said in a previous interview. "Sometimes you make mistakes and you need to own up to them and make things right."

Brand will discuss a variety of issues, including the role of the district, promoting public education, legal issues, food service, learning centers and Prop. O.

Chula Vista resident Stewart Payne said Brand is setting realistic expectations.

"I think he's made a lot of good changes," he said. "Having the ability to see that certain things need to be changed and the courage to change them is a good thing."

Brand will also talk about the district's successes, which include Sweetwater receiving recognition from the state and nation, leading the state in Golden Bell awards, being on the list of distinguished schools and consistently exceeding national and state standards in test scores and drop-out rates.

Since the first board meeting that he assumed the interim role on June 21, Brand has met with some 30 individuals and 15 community groups and vocalized a 30- 60- 90-day plan to address community issues and implement changes in the district.

Brand said his ultimate goal for the district is to have it running like a well-oiled functioning organization.

"One that truly focuses all of its time and energy on student achievement, motivations and self esteem," he said.

One recurring issue is the role and pay of school district attorney Bonny Garcia, about which Brand said he will suggest a major policy change in legal services.

"I will recommend not having a general counsel and not having the attorney (Garcia) at our board meetings," he said. Instead, Brand said he will recommend to the board that the responsibility of legal complaints be filtered by himself.

Garcia, a managing partner in the law firm, said his company suggested that the function of general counsel be eliminated.

"GCR will continue to serve the district in a variety of areas," Garcia said through a spokesman in an email.

If accepted by the board, Garcia would then be compensated through a retainer fee and billable hours, which are $250 an hour.

In addition, Garcia's current $83,000 month salary would "disappear."

Furthermore, Brand said he will recommend that the law firm of Garcia, Calderon and Ruiz LLP would become one of eight firms that serve the district, rather than the main firm.

"The bottom line is we think we'll save at least $500,000 by doing this," he said. "The money could potentially go toward the general fund and be used for student services and/or help reduce the district's deficit."

In addition, the district has hired an outside agency to investigate several staff.

Since Brand came on board, some 10 district employees have either been placed on administrative leave or resigned.

Those include Bonita Vista Middle School principal David Ochoa and assistant principal Abram Jimenez, who both resigned, and district food services director Nancy Stewart.

"We will be moving forward with the dismissal of personnel in the upcoming month with people in the food service arena," Brand said. "We've also put some internal business controls in place so this shouldn't happen again."

In contrast, the district has since hired on approximately 20 new assistant principals; however, Brand said that not all positions may be filled due to budget constraints.

During the summit, the community will be given clickers to participate in live polls for discussion, with all questions, comments and results posted to the district's website.

Stewart said the instant feedback will allow people to give their opinion without fear of identifying themselves.

"The flip side is that I think one of the problems we have in this district is that people are afraid to look people in the eye and tell them that they disagree," he said.

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