Regarding the ethical problems, Breitfelder said members of the taxpayers association had expressed concern about the various scandals in the Sweetwater Union High School District. “Many of the recent controversies consuming Sweetwater have centered on the sometimes massive campaign contributions from contractors who do business with the district.”
There is a perception that a new university/bond proposal would be a boon for contractors and construction companies and would feather the campaign nests of candidates who support the endeavor. Last week, agents of the district attorney’s office raided the homes of several Sweetwater boardmembers and Henry Amigable, who had managed construction financed by the Proposition O school bond.
The district’s lack of campaign-donation limits motivated Alex Anguiano, president of the Sweetwater Education Association, to speak at the November board meeting. He said he would love to see a university in the South Bay and that in 2006 his association had supported Proposition O. However, Anguiano would not be bringing the current proposal before his association’s council, he said, because “There are no safeguards in place to prevent boardmembers from taking excess contributions from lawyers and contractors.”
Anguiano pointed to the campaign contributions made by Seville. The Seville Group was the program manager for all of the recent Proposition O construction. In 2010, Seville gave the reelection campaigns of boardmembers Jim Cartmill $20,000, John McCann $12,500, and Arlie Ricasa $10,000.
Sweetwater U is, among other things, a political football, and like a football it needs a lot of spin.
The November 11 Union-Tribune article that announced the district’s endeavor to build a university quoted Scott Himelstein, director of the Center for Education Policy and Law at the University of San Diego. Himelstein called Sweetwater U a “bold and innovative” plan. Himelstein’s statement comes as no surprise as the Center for Education did the 2010 study for the City of Chula Vista and Himelstein is named as one of the study’s authors.
Himelstein and Brand share history as well. The last time their names appeared together was in a 2006 Union-Tribune article detailing Brand’s sudden departure from the San Marcos Unified School District, where he was superintendent. According to the article, titled “Schools Chief’s Style Led to Friction,” Brand had overridden the district’s teacher-selection process in order to get Himelstein’s wife a teaching position.
Before December 31, it is anticipated that Brand will sign a three-year contract with the district.
There may be political play in Sweetwater U for trustee John McCann. He is expected to run for a seat in the state assembly in 2012 and/or for mayor of Chula Vista when Cheryl Cox is termed out in 2014. Earlier this year, the online newspaper San Diego Rostra suggested that McCann was on “the Republican bench” for the District 78 assembly seat.
At the same time that the Sweetwater district is pursuing a university, it is also moving forward with another postsecondary gambit. The board voted 3–2 on December 11 to pursue a K–16 charter school.
According to Brand, K–12 is dead as an educational model; the future student needs a K–16, or cradle-to-college, program. He pointed out that the budgets for San Diego State and UCSD are shrinking, but more students will be graduating from high school, and they will be unable to obtain an advanced degree. Approximately 6000 students a year graduate from the Sweetwater district.
“If we create it, our own students will have first priority in getting a higher education,” said Brand. He believes that a K–16 school and Sweetwater U would be compatible, that students would be able to transfer from one institution to another. A building on the south side of Chula Vista High School has been chosen for the preliminary step in this program. Brand says a prekindergarten through third-grade charter school will open in July.
“Some people say it’s about the money,” Brand said, “but it’s really about the education. If we can get them before kindergarten, we can keep them with us all the way.”
The reason some people suggest that the charter school is “about the money” is that it would draw students from the Chula Vista Elementary School District as well as from Southwestern College, a community college. Federal and state monies from those districts would then go to Sweetwater.
Like many educational institutions, Sweetwater faces severe economic hardships in the coming year. Yet, the board hired a $30,000 consultant to advance the K–16 idea. Boardmembers Bertha López and Pearl Quiñones opposed hiring the consultant. López said she opposed it because of the cost and because the district needs to focus on educating high school students.
Alex Anguiano, of the Sweetwater Education Association, called pursuit of the K–16 school “a money pit” and said the money voted for the consultant was the first money into the pit.
The consultant hired by the district to promote K–16, Susan Mitchell, said in a recent interview that there was no precedent for this kind of program. She will be presenting a “cradle to college” symposium for parents at Chula Vista High on January 12.
One large problem for the K–16 concept is the California Education Code. The code is comprehensive legislation that directs everything from curriculum and hiring practices to bond elections. When asked whether a K–16 school might encounter education-code problems, Brand speculated, “I think in the future there might be an educational zone, which would function like a redevelopment zone or a business zone.” Presumably, the code would be subject to change in the new zone.
Jaime Mercado, who served as a Sweetwater boardmember and as a principal in the district for 24 years, has already been surveyed on the bond. He said he was contacted by a firm identifying itself as FM3 Research America, which operates out of Philadelphia. He said the survey was misleading.
Paraphrasing the conversation, Mercado said he was asked if he would vote for a bond if dangerous wiring or dilapidated classrooms or asbestos were jeopardizing students’ health. Mercado said that propositions BB and O had been passed to fix these problems. He said part of the survey implied that teachers were going to lose their jobs if he didn’t support the measure. “It was like, if you don’t support the bond, you don’t support mom and apple pie.”