"The honeymoon might be over,” acknowledged Dr. Edward Brand, interim superintendent for Sweetwater Union High School District. Knee-deep in scandal, the Sweetwater school board on June 21 fired Superintendent Jesus Gandara. On June 22, Brand stepped into Gandara’s shoes, but people are already asking if the shoes fit too well.
“Sweetwater is in my DNA,” Brand said in an early September interview. Brand served as Sweetwater’s superintendent from 1995 to 2005. His return was welcomed by many.
Community activists were so pleased to be rid of Gandara, and so eager to see Sweetwater get back on its feet, they agreed to stop sharing scandals with the press. The truce ended on August 29.
The trigger was an incident at the school board’s workshop on teamwork. According to community activist Fran Brinkman, the combative board had been shouting over one another, and board president John McCann had been known to shut off the microphone of boardmember Bertha López. The workshop meeting began in the boardroom, but after 15 minutes, Brand announced a break. Later, it was discovered that Brand had reconvened the meeting in a back room — without the public.
Community activist Kathleen Cheers said she was “livid.” According to Cheers, she and Brinkman sat in the boardroom for over an hour waiting for the workshop to resume.
Brinkman said that no one advised them that it had reconvened elsewhere. She said that a Brown Act violation has been filed against the district.
In the September interview, Brand said he had no intention of excluding the audience. His perspective was, “We wanted to do a workshop about teamwork. It wasn’t about making policy. We did a 15-minute overview in open session, and then we went from the boardroom to this back room because we were going to lay out charts. I had instructed our staff that if anybody [from the audience] wanted to observe, then they could be invited back. Somehow, that didn’t get communicated to the three or four people who showed up for the meeting.”
Brand admitted, however, that he really didn’t want the public to attend the teamwork powwow “because then the workshop discussion would not be as frank.”
Both Cheers and Brinkman had informed Brand of their desire to attend the workshop. Before it commenced, Cheers stated during public comment that she was looking forward to seeing the board “interact.”
Brinkman said she’d told Brand in a phone conversation the previous day, “I definitely want to be in attendance at the workshop.”
Brand remembered the phone conversation differently. “I don’t recall that she said, ‘I definitely want to be in there.’ What I heard her say was, ‘I’m definitely coming to the board workshop.’” Brand said no Brown Act violation occurred because policy was not discussed at the workshop.
At the school-board meeting the next evening, August 30, Brinkman told the board, “I thought Brand was the real deal. I am deeply disappointed.”
It’s no accident that the board was having a workshop on teamwork. In order to solve the district’s problems, Brand needs a cohesive board. Rumors have circulated that Brand will walk if he doesn’t get cooperation.
During the September interview, Brand responded to a question about the rumor. “Well, it’s like this, so the board asked me to help resolve some of these issues. Like any administrator, you try to bring forward ideas and recommendations, and the belief is that the majority of the time the board is going to adopt them.… If it ever gets to the point that they stop accepting my recommendations, then the good news from my perspective is, I have the wherewithal to say, ‘Thanks, it’s been fun.’ Now, do I want to do that? Heck, no, I love this place.”
Events at the August 30 board meeting suggest that the lessons on teamwork didn’t take. Issues from Gandara’s regime still fester, particularly his handsome severance package. Had Gandara been fired for cause — anything from fraud to moral turpitude — the district would not have been obliged to pay his salary from June to September, nor his retirement.
In the months before his departure, newspaper articles recounted the scandals, such as Gandara’s alleged abuse of his credit card or the invitations sent to employees of construction companies with district contracts to hang money on his daughter’s money tree at her bridal shower. The district attorney’s office is investigating numerous allegations.
Until the day Gandara was ousted, boardmember López alone had called for him to be put on leave. On August 30, López went renegade again. She expressed concern that, during the board’s deliberations on Gandara, board president McCann withheld a pertinent legal opinion.
She told the packed boardroom, “I would like to request, in view of the fact that written information was withheld from me regarding the separation agreement with Dr. Gandara, and therefore not allowing me to make an informed decision…that all of the documents regarding Dr. Gandara’s separation agreement be sent to the attorney general for closer scrutiny.…”
Fran Brinkman had the same concerns. Last week, she filed a complaint against McCann with the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission, alleging, “Mr. McCann protected Dr. Gandara from accountability…and withheld information to manipulate Board approval for a lucrative severance package he negotiated at tremendous taxpayer cost.”
Asked if he had seen the alleged attorney letter advising the board that Gandara could be fired for cause, Brand said, “Whether or not there were legal opinions out there, it’s a closed-session item, can’t be discussed. It’s a violation of the Brown Act to take something that’s discussed in closed session and have it made public.… I can neither confirm nor deny that there is [a letter].”
When asked if morale is low because of the district’s ongoing problems, Brand answered, “I know that the controversial items in the district don’t help people to feel good about themselves, but the way I look at it…Muhammad Ali got hit in the face a couple of times, but they still call him the champ. In my mind, we’re gonna get our swagger back.”