The latest round of indictments handed down by San Diego’s criminal grand jury is so extensive, people wonder if corruption is just another name for South Bay. Fifteen defendants from three separate South Bay school districts, a construction company CEO, and a bond financier face 256 charges.
In the case of the Sweetwater Union High School District board, four current trustees — James Cartmill, Bertha Lopez, Pearl Quiñones, Arlie Ricasa, and former trustee Gregorio Sandoval — will be arraigned on charges on January 30. The district’s former superintendent Jesus Gandara will also be arraigned on that day.
By now many people have read about the lavish meals South Bay trustees and school administrators enjoyed at the contractor’s expense. Given what we know about Sweetwater in particular, maybe it’s time to ask if dining out is endemic to the district culture.
Well before he was indicted, the U-T was reporting on former superintendent Gandara’s dining habits. According to a May 2011 article, Gandara, before having his district credit card yanked, “had charged more than 300 meals to taxpayers over three years, even though his contract paid him $800 a month for expenses.”
The same article tells us: “Some $12,560 was charged to Gandara's district credit card for 366 meals from November 2007 to March 16, when he stopped using it.
“The most common meal partners for Gandara were members of the school board, who took part in 238 of the meals.
“Trustee Arlie Ricasa dined with the superintendent 92 times, followed by trustee Pearl Quiñones at 49 times. Former trustee Greg Sandoval met with Gandara 41 times, according to the records, while trustee Jim Cartmill met with him 38 times and Bertha Lopez met with him 11 times.
“Newly appointed board member John McCann appears seven times, including once as a Chula Vista councilman before his job on the school board.”
Gandara justified his use of the credit card by saying that without it “community members would have to come to the district office for coffee or water instead of being treated to restaurants.”
Many people in the South Bay wonder why taxpayers pay for administrative offices that are not the setting for business meetings — whether with trustees or contractors.
But Gandara did not invent the fine art of dining out.
In 2002, a Sweetwater student began investigating the district. Gordon Siu was a reporter for his Bonita Vista High School paper. In a January 9 interview, Siu, a 2010 Yale graduate, said he began to get a sense that the district administration “was doing things the wrong way.” It appeared to Siu that “the trend was that these officials were more concerned with making themselves look good than they were with education.”
Before Siu graduated from Bonita Vista in ’06, he put in two public record requests: one for then-superintendent Ed Brand’s calendar and the other for Brand’s credit card receipts spanning 2000–2003. (Brand was superintendent of Sweetwater from 1995–2005. He returned to Sweetwater on the heels of Gandara’s buyout in June 2011.)
When he received the record, Siu was taken aback when he saw that Brand ate out almost every day and sometimes twice a day. Siu wondered: “When did he have time for students and teachers?”
Looking at the South Bay scandal today, Siu commented, “I tried to tell everyone years ago what was going on.”