Sweetwater Union High School District’s dirt story continues to be significant. Potentially contaminated soil dumped at Southwest High School poses questions that many would like to have answered: Why have district leaders sought to mislead the public about the estimated 10,000 tons of dirt dumped on the campus? Who is looking out for the Southwest High School students’ well-being?
On June 18, 10News first reported on the Southwest dirt pile and stated that soil testing revealed the dirt was contaminated. Interim school-district superintendent Ed Brand told 10News that he had inherited the problem from former superintendent Jesus Gandara — who has been indicted for bribery and other charges connected with the district. Brand told 10News, “I can’t tell you specifically where it came from. I believe it was a group of volunteers that brought the dirt in.”
On July 13, the district continued to prevaricate. 10News spoke to district administrator Ramon Leyba, who reportedly “wouldn’t tell 10News where the dirt came from or why it was brought here.”
But a public record request submitted by Kevin O’Neill, a member of Sweetwater’s Proposition O Bond Oversight Committee, yielded what O’Neill believes is “the smoking gun” of the dirt-pile controversy.
According to the public record request, on March 22, 2012, Gary Gauger, maintenance manager for the district, wrote in an email to a Southwest High teacher:
“As Lee [a former Southwest principal] and the previous principal can tell you, I am all too familiar with this debacle. I was called to the site a year ago when the first unapproved load was dumped. I tried, along with my immediate supervisor, to stop the remainder of the 100,000 yards from being brought to the site. As you can see, we were not successful. I was well aware a year ago that this day would come, it would present a safety issue if not addressed, and that, by proxy, my department would be left holding the bag. I also told the previous administration and the offending contractor that they were covering the only property drain at the southeast part of the school and that it would affect our neighbors eventually.
“Currently, we are still trying to locate a contractor in Southern California that will remove the dirt. I’ve already informed Dr. Brand, Dianne Russo, and Mr. Romero of our continued efforts to do so. We have been turned down, or laughed at, at every attempt. We have another contractor out there today assessing the work. Again, we are hoping this one will take the job. The soil has to be tested before any can be removed….
“The track itself was scheduled to be graded last week (before the rains) for the season. Like the football field that was rendered useless by the same act, the track is now unsafe and will most likely re-flood with the coming rains. I’m not telling you anything you do not already know. Our efforts to dig a drainage swale behind the mound has been thwarted by the same rains and soggy soil.”
Gauger was contacted on July 26. On July 27 an assistant returned the call and said to speak to district communications, per protocol.
O’Neill’s public record request also garnered an April 29, 2011, Craiglist posting for “Free Fill Dirt” — and a reply by a Southwest employee saying: “We would love as much dirt as we can get for all our athletic fields — can you deliver to Southwest high School?”
Included in O’Neill’s public record sweep was a contract signed April 29, 2011, by Southwest High’s principal, Maria Armstrong, giving permission to Southland Paving, Inc., to deposit the dirt.