No one was surprised to see that the Sweetwater Union High School District board failed to agree on a process to replace former trustee Arlie Ricasa at a January 14 special meeting. (Ricasa pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor December 18 and was obliged to resign). However, many who attended the meeting wondered if the lack of agreement was the usual dysfunction — or orchestrated dysfunction.
Only three board members were present at the meeting — trustees Jim Cartmill, John McCann, and Bertha Lopez. According to Cartmill, trustee Pearl Quiñones could not attend due to a trip to see her ailing mother in Texas.
The meeting began with the district’s attorney, Daniel Shinoff, outlining a process in which an ad hoc committee might be composed of the board president, vice president, and the mayors of Imperial Beach, Chula Vista, and National City. Following a review of applications, the ad hoc committee would interview candidates and forward prospects to the board. Public comment would be integrated into the process.
Trust in the district is so low that many speakers argued against anyone in the district office handling the applications; some suggested that all applications pass through the attorney’s office.
Lopez, a consistent critic of schools superintendent Ed Brand, argued that she was neither president nor vice president, so the proposed process excluded her. She suggested an alternative selection process that had been used by Southwestern College, one that she felt was more inclusive of all stakeholders.
The twist in the evening came when McCann called for a special election —which he said he favored in the interest of democracy. When McCann campaigned in 2010, his website declared that he “stands for Fiscal Responsibility” and that he “will require a balanced budget for the District and ensure that District Bond money is spent wisely.”
McCann’s insistence on a costly vote seemed inconsistent — and foreshadowed the direction and possibly the way the replacement process will go.
The district must fill the seat within 60 days from the time of Ricasa’s resignation — they are already 27 days into the countdown. There are only two choices: get a selection process going or hold a special election.
A special election would cost more than a million dollars for a position that would last less than a year. Former chief financial officer Albert Alt and former interim CFO Rick Knott have expressed concern about the district’s continued deficit-spending.
On the heels of McCann’s statement, Cartmill stated that it was obvious that three votes could not be attained for a selection process. He appeared to be shepherding the dais to option two: a special election.
But before Cartmill could close the discussion, Lopez stated she felt “cheated.” She said that the district knew beforehand that Quiñones would not be attending the meeting; why had they not made every effort to arrange for Quiñones to weigh in via Skype or telephone, she asked.
Then the meeting teetered out of control, with the attendees calling for a vote, for clarification, and for a process.
Cartmill made a motion in favor of the process Shinoff had outlined but warned the other trustees that only a dissenting voter could ever return this proposal to the board. The motion died for lack of a second.
Finally, Lopez urged that the board make every effort to reach Quiñones by Friday and find out if there is a way she can participate. Lopez said a special election would rob the district of resources needed for the students.
The district has until February 17 to fill the seat. Ricasa pleaded out exactly 60 days before the corruption trial is due to start. Curious timing, according to some.
Stakes are high for the vacant seat and possibly highest for Brand.
School superintendents often move their agendas forward by relying on the vote of three trustees. Sweetwater superintendent Ed Brand has enjoyed the fairly consistent support of trustees Jim Cartmill, John McCann, and Arlie Ricasa.
In September 2011, Brand told the Reader that his staying on as superintendent is conditional. He said: “If it ever gets to the point that they stop accepting my recommendations, then the good news from my perspective is, I have the wherewithal to say, ‘Thanks, it’s been fun.’”