School-district unification raised its controversial head again at a January 28 Chula Vista City Council meeting. Councilwoman Mary Salas, who is a candidate for Chula Vista mayor in November 2014, moved to agendize a council discussion on unification of the Sweetwater Union High School District and the Chula Vista Elementary School District.
Salas cited the California Education Code, specifically EC35721, which states that a city council can, by a majority vote, compel the county board of education to hold a public hearing on the unification proposal. Further down the line, according to the same education code, this item would go to the public for a vote.
South Bay has seen several battles about unification. In a 1992 effort, according to a Union-Tribune article, “voters in both [National City and Imperial Beach] considered forming separate kindergarten-through-12th-grade districts in their communities that would have yanked control of seven secondary schools away from Sweetwater. Both measures failed. Sweetwater officials campaigned vigorously against the measures, and the district spent $200,000 on unification-related material.”
Another attempt was made by National City to unify with parts of Sweetwater in 2006. An interesting quote from a Union-Tribune article shows the way that unification might open a surprise can of worms. The person being quoted in the article is former Sweetwater trustee Greg Sandoval — he is under indictment for multiple corruption charges.
Sandoval: “I had staff contact the mayor's office [National City] twice to set up dates and have never gotten a response…. If the council wants to add unification to the agenda then we can chitchat about that.”
Sandoval said Sweetwater should consider unifying its own district by taking over the four elementary school systems in South County.
“If we open the door for a unification discussion, then I would have an interest in opening the door wider,” Sandoval said. “With our new superintendent (Jesus Gandara) [also indicted] coming on board, who has experience working with elementary schools, he can be a strong point of articulation. I'm interested in looking at the possibility.”
Ultimately, unification of South Bay districts has always been defeated at the polls.
At this point, unification will only be agendized for discussion at the Chula Vista City Council in the coming month. Salas said on the dais she wants all vested parties to have a chance to weigh in and hopes to invite superintendent Randy Ward from the San Diego County Office of Education.
By way of motivating the unification proposal, Salas offered these two considerations at the January 28 meeting: she said the two districts are already beginning to blur the students they educate through their charter-school offerings. Chula Vista Elementary has several charter schools that offer classes up to grade 8. Sweetwater, with its Stephen Hawking charter, is aiming for K-6.
Salas also said that the elementary school offers an excellent dual-immersion (bi-lingual) program that is not continued in the middle and high schools.
When contacted for comment, Manny Rubio, director of grants and communications at Sweetwater, said, “The Sweetwater District actually does have a dual-immersion programs that operates at Southwest Middle, Southwest High, Rancho Del Rey Middle, Otay Ranch High, EastLake Middle, and Eastlake High. There are several other schools that have also expressed interest and may be added in the future.”
On the topic of unification, Rubio said, “The idea of unification is not a new one. There have been a few unsuccessful attempts at it over the decades (I remember seeing materials that date back to the ’70s and ’80s). Ultimately, the Sweetwater District has always strived to provide the best education possible for our 41,000 students in grades 7–12 and over 22,000 adult learners that span over four municipalities and multiple neighborhoods. Discussion of unification at this point seems very abstract and there are many factors that would need to be considered before making such a major change.”
A comment from Anthony Millican, Chula Vista Elementary director of communications and community development, hints that the elementary district, like Sweetwater, does not fully embrace the idea of unification.
“We are flattered by the compliments of our local elected officials,” said Millican. “We appreciate the high regard that parents have of the Chula Vista Elementary School District. However, a lot of research and analysis needs to be conducted to make an informed decision about unification.
“It is a very complex process, and there are more questions than answers right now. It sounds simple, but a number of challenging issues would need to be addressed — everything from funded and unfunded liabilities to official boundaries. We need more information, but on the surface, it does not appear to be of interest. Ultimately, this issue would need to be decided by the voters.”
One concern many community members have expressed is that Sweetwater has not been on solid ground financially for some time. Sweetwater’s last two chief financial officers have pointed out district problems with deficit-spending. Sweetwater also has been borrowing heavily from Mello-Roos funds and has engaged in problematic land deals. The district retains the bare minimum in its reserve account. On the other hand, Chula Vista has almost a 20 percent reserve and does not borrow from Mello-Roos funds.
Regarding Sweetwater’s finances, Millican stated: "Would it be wise for Chula Vista Elementary School District to take on those liabilities? That is something that would definitely need to be researched further.”