To paraphrase Thomas Payne’s most lucid argument for the 1776 American Revolution against Great Britain, “How does it make Common Sense for an island to govern a continent?” And so it is with the Sweetwater Union High School District (SUHSD) that I think Councilwomann Mary Salas has recently reminded us that the solution to the ongoing cancer of ethics and efficacy in this strange “ Unified High School District” has been right there in front of us all along; unification.
Some backstory; In 2003 as an assistant principal at Sweetwater High School I was deposed by both a San Diego Grand Jury investigating allegations of district corruption in regards to contracts with kick backs from vendors. In the same year I was questioned by counsel in an ongoing civil case of the SUHSD creating a hostile workplace for whistleblowers, a case that the SUHSD employee/plaintiff eventually won.
I knew firsthand of corruption at the district level and the professional blowback for speaking up about it. I eventually took a step back (ie. quit) when public interest waned. Luckily, more well informed and tenacious critics and bold advocates for truth have since stood up and filled the void by working directly with District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, who eventually brought felony bribery and corruption charges against those board members, superintendent and contractors.
The “pay for play” culture of Superintendent Ed Brand’s, and then his successor Jesus Gandara’s, is not a new phenomenon. But the corruption is now so endemic in the very DNA of the district that any hope of installing a new board or passing ethics policy or engaging parents to grass roots reforms, holding special elections or striking for justice is just pouring more time and energy down a vast rat hole. This district is a strangely gerrymandered anomaly that currently governs 10 middle schools, 10 high schools and multiple alternative ed. campuses in five different municipalities over 30 square miles and no longer serves student and parents needs adequately.
Consider the fact that if you live in National City, Imperial Beach or South San Diego you have had no tenable voice on the current school board for the last 15 years. All five current board members live in Bonita or Eastlake and easily collect enough votes from constituents in those areas to stay elected year after unbelievable year. Consider the fact that people from Eastlake and Otay Ranch continually have no clue wear their Mello Roos money goes and have unanswered suspicions that they are being asked to shoulder financial burdens of communities in different zip codes with different priorities and less taxes. I don’t know of anyone, rich, poor or other, who is served satisfactorily by the current SUHSD board. So why does it still exist?
In the late 90s two separate unification initiatives attempted to return the middle and high schools to their own South Bay’s local communities, but a massive scare tactic campaign coordinated by the SUHSD, run by call centers where faculty and administrators were strong armed into participation, crushed the initiative efforts handily. How could voters argue with teachers? Besides being of questionable ethics and a conflict of interest for a public school district to influence a public election, we were also, as it turned out, wrong. So very wrong!
All of the arguments against unification were, and still are, vacuous;
1. “Sports would suffer.” Wrong, the Metro League could continue as it is.
2. “Special Ed students would not have as many choices if schools now open to them were closed because of new school boundaries.” Or, perhaps the new K-12 district would figure out how to serve their own communities special ed. needs like the majority of school districts in California are mandated to do.
3. “Students being underserved in an ‘improvement school’ according to the No Child Left Behind statutes would have fewer choices to flea the blight of their home school.”
Or…they could restructure the schools closest to them via charterization or other parent lead “trigger” reforms without the interference of a jealous SUHSD that has failed the lower income Southwest and Sweetwater Highs of our district time and time again.
4. The proposed new K-12 districts would not be able to take advantage of the massive ‘economies of scale’ that a district of SUHSD’s size is afforded.”
After all of the kickbacks and unreported gifts listed in the indictments of board members and contractors does anyone still think the SUHSD is an effective or ethical manager of tax payer monies in the form of property taxes or special construction bonds? All of the current districts (with the exception of San Ysidro) South Bay, San Diego, Chula Vista and National City have years of unblemished and competent transportation, human resource and fiscal accounting departments in place to do a greatly improved job of what the SUHSD has done in a most disgraceful manner over the last 20 years.
Mary Salas’ daughter and I both got a great education at Bonita Vista High back in the 80s. Parent support, community involvement and three board members in our zip code were no small part of that success story. Every child in the South Bay deserves an education equal to the “Bonita” educational experience that we received.
When will citizens of the South Bay stop permitting a small isolated island of corruption and incompetence on 1130 5th Ave. rule their very different and distant communities with graft, tyranny and indifference? The minute they unify school governance back to the communities that those schools belong to.
Time to dismantle the SUHSD and return control of the middle and high school’s to their local communities.
The time for unification is now.
Hinkle is a teacher in the Sweetwater Union High School District and a National City resident.