The Sweetwater Union High School District has four pieces of property it wants to sell.
At the December 9 board meeting, Tom Calhoun, the executive director of facilities for Sweetwater, gave a presentation on asset utilization — more to the point: what the district wants to do with the surplus property.
The disposition of property has become increasingly urgent as the district continues to deficit-spend — as the note on the L Street property comes due July 2014 — and as the district maneuvers to purchase additional land on the east side of Chula Vista.
As often is the case, the district works in circuitous and less-than-transparent ways.
Problem one: Who was appointed to the advisory committee to make recommendations to the board about the property?
At the November 18 board meeting, the district decided a 7-11, or district advisory committee, should be set up. (The committee must be comprised of between 7 and 11 members.) The committee, by education code, is supposed to reflect the community demographically and have a teacher, an administrator, a parent, and people with real estate expertise.
Some districts solicit applications for their 7-11 committees. Sweetwater chose to have each trustee appoint one person (the fact that four trustees were indicted seemed irrelevant), the superintendent appointed one, and Ramon Leyba, director of state and federal programs, appointed one.
Leyba appointed Isaura Martinez. Indicted trustee Bertha Lopez appointed Kevin O’Neill. Now-former trustee Arlie Ricasa appointed Carmelita Vinson. Indicted trustee Pearl Quiñones appointed Jim Delgado. Indicted trustee Jim Cartmill appointed Doug Kerner. Superintendent Ed Brand appointed Burt Grossman. Trustee John McCann appointed David Malcolm.
Many districts bring their slate back to the board for approval. But at the December 9 meeting, Lopez had to ask Calhoun to tell the board the names of all the people who had been appointed — and who had appointed them.
That was the same night the district was finally giving the presentation on surplus property that Lopez had been asking for over a year.
Meanwhile, the 7-11 committee had already met twice and concluded their business, declaring the Third Avenue property surplus.
Critics complain that appointments to the 7-11 committee look political. The state department’s best practices website states: “…it is important that this expanded school-closure (or surplus property) committee be perceived as objective and independent from suspected school board or other political agendas.”
To even the most casual reader, the list of appointees looks more political than reflective of the community.
One example is Burt Grossman. Two members on the board of trustees frequently challenge Brand on the dais — Quiñones and Lopez. Brand’s appointee to the 7-11 committee, Burt Grossman, ran first against Quiñones and then against Lopez in the 2012 election cycle. Contacted by email, Grossman preferred not to comment because of concerns about Brown Act violations.
David Malcolm is another name that raised eyebrows. Malcolm is a former San Diego Unified Port District commissioner who pleaded guilty to a felony conflict-of-interest charge in 2003. The felony was later expunged. (His LinkedIn profile makes no mention of his Port District employment.)
In a December 16 phone interview, the Reader had three questions for Malcolm. The questions were: What are your qualifications to be on the committee? Why did John McCann appoint you? And, have you ever expressed interest in purchasing or leasing the L Street property?
Malcolm began by saying that perhaps age qualified him for the demographics. He stated that, by way of experience, he had worked on the county assessment appeals board and has held a realtor’s license for many years.
Most importantly, Malcolm told the Reader that the committee will likely never meet again — they’ve done their work in declaring Third Avenue surplus. Malcolm said the time frame for the other properties goes into next year at best, and there will be other trustees by then.
He acknowledged he lives in San Diego but not in the district. When asked if he owned property in Chula Vista and if that made him eligible for the committee, Malcolm seemed to become upset. Among other things, he said, "You've always done whatever you can nasty against me." He ended the conversation by abruptly hanging up.
Problem Two: Education code (section 17387) dictates policy regarding surplus property: “It is the intent of the Legislature to have the community involved before decisions are made about school closure or the use of surplus space, thus avoiding community conflict and assuring building use that is compatible with the community’s needs and desires.”
So, why is the district spending thousands of dollars to have all but one piece of property entitled for high-density apartments when they have yet to engage with the community? (To entitle a piece of property means to get any zoning and licensing done with the city to sell it to a developer.)
In a December 16 email, Sweetwater facilities director Calhoun countered: “We did get the input of the community during the entitlement process on the Third Avenue property which went before the CV Planning Commission and City Council as well as holding two publicly noticed 7-11 Committee meetings. The report adopted by the 7-11 committee recommending that the Board surplus 3rd Avenue will be going to the Board in January.”
But was the public engaged in the Third Avenue area simply to approve plans for the Colony or were they given an opportunity to say what they would like to see on that site — maybe even a district office?
Problem Three: Lack of transparency: The district’s L Street property has been the subject of many articles by several media.
It has always been a screwy deal. The property was purchased under superintendent Brand’s first term in 2005 — as a location for the district office. The district paid about $34 million. The same day the property was purchased, the title was transferred to a "nonprofit" named California Trust, which is also Plan Nine Partners, LLC. The proceeds from the sale of other district properties must, according to an exchange agreement, be used to pay down the debt on L Street.