Sweetwater Union High School District called an unscheduled meeting August 13 to review its “asset utilization plan” for selling district-owned property and purchasing a new administrative building.
The district has three properties that it is readying to sell to a developer for high-density residential developments.
Some attendees felt optimistic about the meeting because a host of Sweetwater board candidates showed up to express concerns, and because the board ultimately decided to pause in a scheme that many critics say is a rush to market.
Sweetwater has engaged the consultant group E2ManageTech to perform entitlement services — zone changes, environmental reviews, plan reviews, and a general plan change — for the properties.
One of the properties that has been entitled was recently put on the market but did not receive a single bid.
At the August 13 meeting, Kevin O’Neill, a candidate for the Sweetwater board, told the trustees to “see the properties like a line of dominoes” and that if one doesn’t sell, the plan falls apart. He also suggested that the most the district should expect from Third Avenue is $4.5 million.
The district asked for $7 million.
Tom Calhoun, Sweetwater’s executive director of facilities, said that the district intends to put Third Avenue out for bid again in early 2015, when he believes there will more favorable market conditions.
O’Neill also asked the board to “prove out” the participation agreement made with E2ManageTech. The agreement gives 1/3 of the profit from the sale of each property to E2ManageTech. He warned the board that litigation will follow the sale of any property.
The participation agreement was signed July 18, 2012, by Diane Russo, who was at the time Sweetwater’s interim deputy superintendent of operations. The district argues that the agreement is invalid — that Russo did not represent the district.
Speakers at the August 13 meeting also expressed frustration with the board’s recent lease-to-own property deal made for administrative offices on the east side of Chula Vista .
Paula Hall, another Sweetwater candidate, pointed out that parents in less affluent communities would be discouraged from attending board meetings if they have to take several buses to get to the new location.
Calhoun countered that he would meet with Metropolitan Transit System representatives in the near future to secure a closer bus stop. Currently, the bus stop is a half mile from the building.
Hall also stated: “It really appalled me when you voted that in [the lease for the new administrative site] because there are so many Sweetwater schools that need upgrading…. In the district where I work, we don’t have a new administrative building, and we have been going along with it, doing whatever we can to ensure that schools come first.”
All the speakers appealed to the board to put off any major decisions.
Dana Toogood, another Sweetwater candidate said, “I heard Dr. [Timothy] Glover speak right after he was named interim superintendent and he spoke about wanting to just get the district going and get it running and that’s what I was hoping this board would do, because the people of this community should be making long-term decisions for themselves.”
All five Sweetwater seats are up for election in November.
When the board emerged from a five-hour closed session, interim superintendent Glover stated, “We have heard you today; we’ve heard about your request for transparency and for third-party validation.”
To that end, the board decided to do three things:
“Authorize the staff to issue a Request For Qualification [bids] for an independent third party to conduct a review of the asset utilization plan and the entitlement process; prepare a letter to the Sweetwater community regarding the asset utilization plan and publish it far and wide”; and “request that an attorney prepare a response to Mr. Litchman and both Mr. Litchman’s letter and the district’s response will be provided and shared with the public.”
Litchman is the CEO of the non-profit California Trust for Public Schools and holds the title to several pieces of district property.
Glover continued: “Our goal is to share the information transparently. We’re looking forward to having the third-party involvement, independent review, and having a strong conversation with all stakeholders.”
Some audience members welcomed the board’s actions. Some continued to have reservations.
Chris Shilling, another Sweetwater candidate who attended the meeting, told the Reader he believes a newly elected board might want to be involved in selecting the third party that reviews the asset utilization plan.