The continued presence of three JDS security guards at Sweetwater Union High School District board meetings is a monthly reminder of the deteriorated relations between the district, the public, and teachers. Even with the presence of Santa Claus and the Grinch, there was no levity at the December 9 meeting.
Speculation is rife that after four board members have their day in court on Friday, December 13, some will resign. Former trustee Jaime Mercado asked the board to consider appointing him to a vacancy, should it arise. Aside from his years of service in the district and as a board member, Mercado told the board that the grand jury quizzed him for eight hours and found his record impeccable.
Negotiations between the district and teachers went to impasse the same day as the board meeting. Teachers from the bargaining team told trustees that the district has been wasting students’ and teachers’ time with regressive bargaining.
Sweetwater Education Association president Roberto Rodriguez articulated this additional bargaining concern in a December 11 email: "As we approach the 1 year anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, I think it's important to emphasize the responsibility of school districts to keep students and staff safe. In our current bargaining we are seeking a commitment from the district to install working phones in every classroom and doors that lock from the inside for every classroom. However, as you well know, the fire alarms have become a concern since we presented our proposals to the district as well."
The district’s proposal includes increasing student-teacher ratio. (An MOU in which the teachers accepted an increase in class size ratio will be over in January.)
A freshman from Bonita Vista high school told the trustees all of her Bonita Vista classes have at least 30 students. She said the class size makes learning more challenging and she opined that she did not even know her classmates’ names. She concluded her speech by saying if the teachers strike, she will support them by staying home.
A teacher dressed as Santa Claus presented the trustees with their holiday wish list and superintendent Ed Brand with a lump of coal.
Counselors, who have a separate union, have not settled with the district, either. A counselor from Sweetwater High School told the board that, beginning in January, she will be taking a 10 percent pay cut because of the district’s position on health benefits.
Teachers and community members expressed frustration and anger throughout the evening that chief financial officer Albert Alt was fired. Although numerous people told the board that Alt had earned their respect by being straightforward about budget issues, the board voted 3-1 to hire Karen Michel as interim chief financial officer. Trustee Bertha Lopez cast the no vote. Trustee Pearl Quiñones went home ill earlier in the evening.
Michel gave the board the bad news for the first interim 2013–2014 budgets: “The district is deficit spending and the deficit is 10.8 million dollars,” said Michel.
This is the fifth year in a row of deficit spending. Brand assured trustees that the budget gap could be closed in three years. Lopez asked the board to consider having the FCMAT (fiscal crisis and management assistance team) audit the district’s finances.
After trustee Arlie Ricasa said that it was not good to be looking at deficit-spending every year, she moved to certify the first interim report. Trustee John McCann acknowledged as well that the district needed to look at closing the gap caused by deficit-spending; then he seconded the motion to certify. The vote was 3-1, with Lopez voting no.
Some of the district’s future financial assumptions are dependent on the sale of surplus property. A board presentation was made on the district’s real estate assets.
To the surprise of many, including Lopez, the district has established a “7-Eleven committee” and the committee has been conducting meetings to deal with the district’s property.