On February 6, the San Diego County Board of Education held a meeting in the Sweetwater Union High School District boardroom to receive community input on the issue of area representation within the Sweetwater district.
Currently, trustees are elected at-large in the district. The petition before the county seeks to “establish trustee areas in the Sweetwater Union High School District and for the election of one member of the governing board residing in each trustee area by the registered voters in that trustee area.”
The meeting drew about 100 people. The only Sweetwater trustee in attendance was Bertha Lopez; neither her colleagues nor superintendent Ed Brand showed.
The district did, however, issue a statement that read in part: “The Sweetwater Union High School District supports the will of the community with regards to establishing trustee areas with its geographic boundaries.”
Gene Chavira, the chief petitioner for area representation, a Sweetwater teacher, and member of Citizens for a Better Sweetwater, addressed the county board about the need for change.
Chavira said, “In the last few years, Sweetwater has been marred by scandals that include trustees and a former superintendent charged with corruption, accusation of misuse of Proposition O funds, questionable real estate deals, and the use of district resources to establish a chain of private charter schools….
“There is a perception that there is difference between the east side and the west side of the school district. Freeway 805 is the division between the new neighborhoods on the east side and the old neighborhoods on the west side. Currently three out of four trustees live in the Bonita/Eastlake area — until recently with the resignation of Arlie Ricasa it was four out of five. The Citizens for a Better Sweetwater believe that this has left areas like Imperial Beach, South San Diego, San Ysidro, and western Chula Vista without adequate representation.”
Chavira said Citizens for a Better Sweetwater collected over 750 signatures going door-to-door and found “resounding” support for area representation.
Speakers lined up to support the idea and many referred to the democratic atmosphere in the board room. Speakers mentioned that there were no guards, no manipulation of speaking time, and no demonstrations outside.
Each speaker presented various problems from the district that he or she felt would be rectified by having a trustee from a specific area. Two common themes were the east side/west side divide and the concern about how the geographic areas would be drawn up.
Colleen Cook-Salas, a west-side resident and a teacher at Mar Vista Academy, articulated both concerns, “Mar Vista has felt like the district’s step-child for so many years…vandals stole the copper tubing from [Mar Vista’s] classroom air-conditioning over Fourth of July weekend. These units were not repaired until the winter break. Do you remember the heat we endured since our site opened in July? Our area does not feel represented.”
On the subject of boundaries, Cook-Salas said: “I am also extremely concerned with how the geographic areas would be designed. When this topic was considered two years ago, some of the proposed divisions demonstrated appalling gerrymandering. Yes, the board of trustees is in favor of seats by areas, but by what design?”
Another teacher from Mar Vista High in Imperial Beach, Siri Sims, said one piece of evidence about the need for representation is that recently the board voted to purchase a new district office.
“They state $8 million was the cost but when we look at the figures, it’s more like $30 million and it is in the furthest eastern reaches of our district. It’s a convenient commute for the board members who live in eastern Chula Vista. But, so you understand for my parents in my school [Mar Vista] if they were traveling by their current means of transportation, which is the bus or the trolley, that would require a two-and-a-half-hour commute, four buses, and a half-mile walk; clearly no one in National City, San Ysidro, or Imperial Beach was considered…it’s really stunning and shocking.”
County board of education members were receptive and eager to hear the public’s opinion. Whenever someone new entered the board room, president Susan Hartley invited them to fill out a speaker’s card.
County trustee Greg Robinson commented, “I really appreciate the bravery of you folks showing up today, and I know how difficult that is — and it shouldn’t be that difficult.”
Normally, after the petition is accepted by the county it goes to an election. However, the board indicated it is also possible to ask the state board of education to waive the election. One motivation for the waiver is to save the district the cost of an election.
Laura Duzyk said if the county board decided to go for a waiver, there would be another public hearing. She also said there would be public hearings throughout the process for drawing up the areas.
The county trustees vote on the petition Wednesday, February 12, 6:00. After that, they will take up the subject of the waiver. Should they go forward with the waiver, and should the state board approve it, voters could select trustees based on areas as soon as November 14.