Only one month after Donna Frye, on behalf of Californians Aware, addressed the Sweetwater Union High School District board on potential Brown Act violations, the superintendent and trustees swept the meeting room clean of anyone who wished to address them.
At 6:00 p.m. on October 21, the parking lot at district headquarters had filled with teachers protesting the administration's recent offer on health benefits. While the district, earlier in the year, offered to pay 68 percent of the rate for all employees, three weeks after open enrollment, the district offered a formula that will result in a reduced percentage and hit teachers with families the hardest. At the same time, the district wants a three-year deal where class sizes (which was inflated during the recession) remain the same. No salary increases were offered.
Teachers in the parking lot held up signs and chanted with a Halloween theme: the most persistent chant was “Brand’s gotta go.” Many teachers filled out white slips to speak during the public comment portion of the meeting. Because of the large turnout, however, the majority of the people had to stand in the parking lot.
The double doors that serve as an entrance to the board room were ordered closed. Tom Calhoun, the chief facilities executive, blocked the double doors from the inside (people could exit through an exit door); two private security officers were directed to block the doors from the outside so no one could enter — even though it was a public meeting and some seats were still empty.
This reporter was not allowed to leave through the rear double doors, the normal exit. The only way out for the crowd in the board room was through a maze of desks that led to a single door propped open by a chair.
People in the board room were close to calling the fire department when the teachers, families, and students who were in the parking lot poured through the side door and filled the back of the room, chanting, “Respect our contract!” Trustee Jim Cartmill admonished people in the audience to lower their signs, then Brand and the board retreated to closed session.
Although the board room was empty of trustees, the audience sat down and began to listen to an impromptu speech. A young boy appealed for benefits for his family. Then, Roberto Rodriguez, president of the Sweetwater Education Association, explained the negotiation impasse. Nick Marinovich, chairman of the bond-oversight committee, gave an abbreviated report. Kathy Cheers spoke in favor of the teachers receiving the benefit package they were promised and urged the teachers to unite. Wanda Parise elaborated on the district’s chronic borrowing from Mello-Roos funds.
All was going well until six Chula Vista police officers entered the room from the rear offices, accompanied by two private security guards. Everyone except the media was ejected from the board room and then it was announced there would be no public comments.
This is the third time Chula Vista police have been called to a Sweetwater board meeting by a member of the board or the superintendent.
The board then went on to do “priority business”: they authorized spending an additional $1,126,800 for entitlement services on the L Street property, which was initially purchased for a district office in 2005.
Later, in closed session, the board authorized the purchase of new property on the east side of Chula Vista. The vote was 3-2, with Pearl Quiñones and Bertha Lopez voting against the purchase. The property is 103,000 square feet and sells for $97 a square foot.
Bernardo Vasquez spoke against the purchase earlier in the evening. He noted that it was ironic the district was making the purchase while denying teachers their agreed-upon health benefits. He pointed to the district’s chronic deficit-spending and low financial reserves. Vasquez also pointed out that 71 percent of the district's students were on the west side.