After gathering the more than the 750 signatures required to file a petition with the San Diego County Office of Education, a community group called Citizens for a Better Sweetwater are trying to put a proposal on the November ballot that could break up the Sweetwater Union High School District into trustee regions.
Much like a city that has district elections, the new proposal would make the five elected school board members come from each one of the geographic regions within the district’s boundaries.
Gene Chavira, one of the founders of Citizens for a Better Sweetwater, said this proposed election model would make the process “much more democratic.”
He said the process becomes more democratic because the way elections are set up now it takes a lot of money to campaign for a trustee.
For example, Chavira said, Trustee Jim Cartmill in his last election spent about $100,000 on his campaign.
Chavira said if the district is cut into smaller districts then a potential trustee has to just reach one-fifth of the people and it doesn’t cost as much money to do mailings.
He also said it makes it more feasible for a trustee running in an election to go door to door.
Chavira is a social science teacher at Mar Vista High School in Imperial Beach, which is a school in the Sweetwater District.
He said a regional election would help prevent instances like the one that occurred at Southwest High School two years ago where the school’s principal authorized tons of dirt to be placed near the football field.
After the dirt caused drainage issues on the football field, the school needed to move the dirt, which was then tested and proven to be toxic, Chavira said.
Chavira said the district needed to bring in experts to move the dirt and it ended up costing the district $700,000.
He said at the time the district was debating about spending the money to move the dirt but he said, at the same time, the board approved millions of dollars for a new track at Otay Ranch High School.
“I believe that if a trustee was in charge of Imperial Beach, South San Diego and San Ysidro, they would have the ability to monitor that smaller area and they live in that area, so they will be more in tune to what’s going on in that little area as opposed to four of the five trustees living in Eastlake and Bonita,” he said. “They (the current trustees) don’t go down to Imperial Beach or South San Diego.”
Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez helped Chavira spearhead the petition drive.
“It’s clear that there is a large group of folks — teachers, students and parents — who are not happy with the accountability of the district,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez said when she ran for the Assembly, one of the main concerns she would hear from community members is the disenfranchisement of what was happening at the Sweetwater district.
She said even to this day she still gets calls from community members expressing their discontent with how the district is operating.
Citizens for a Better Sweetwater started out last June wanting to petition for term limits for district board members, but the organization changed their focus to regional elections when term limits became a difficult task for the grassroots organization.
“We also wanted to petition for the term limits but then we were informed by the San Diego Office of Education that that is outside of their jurisdiction,” Chavira said.
He said a petition for the change in term limits would have to be made by the state and required about 18,000 signatures.
Manny Rubio, director of grants and communications for the Sweetwater Union High School District, said board members had no influence on the petition.
“It’s a democratic process, and I think the community has spoken as far as what their hopes are in terms of electing our trustees,” Rubio said.
Rubio said he doesn’t think switching to a new election model would cost the district any money in the election costs.
In 2011, the Sweetwater district explored the idea of having trustees elected by areas, but board members did not move on it.
“At that time our board didn’t take any action on it,” Rubio said. This isn’t a new idea, this is something I know has been discussed several times over the years.”
Rubio said the district even discussed where those regions would be.
A demographer also came out and showed the district potential areas for boundaries.
Sweetwater Trustee John McCann said he favors a regional election process.
“The district is over 500,000 citizens, and I think this will give better local control and accountability to our citizens,” he said.
McCann said he supported the item when the district had brought this item to the table.
Music Watson, chief communications officer for the San Diego County Office of Education, said only three of the 42 K-12 school districts in the county do “by trustee area elections.”
Those districts are Escondido Union, Escondido Union High and Vista Unified.
Watson said other districts in the county do a mixture of trustee area elections in the primary, then during the general election the voting is at large.
The petition was submitted to the San Diego County Office of Education last December.
The Registrar of Voters, which examines the signatures, certified the signatures Jan. 6
A public hearing regarding the matter will take place at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 6, at the Sweetwater Union High School District office, 1130 Fifth Ave. in Chula Vista.
If the San Diego County of Office of Education approves this proposal, it will then go on the ballot.