Part of Sweetwater’s uphill battle in gaining public support for a university is that 14 of the district’s schools
have been identified for “Program Improvement” after failing to meet proficiency goals.
Will Harvard or Notre Dame come to a South Bay university site as Sweetwater school district boardmember John McCann suggested in November? Will taxpayers vote for another bond to build a university? Will the City of Chula Vista build a bigger and better university before the school district’s university gets off the ground? These are the juicy prospects that dangle before South Bay residents.
At the Sweetwater Union High School District’s November 14 board meeting, trustees voted to go forward with a concept that interim superintendent Edward Brand said he affectionately calls “Sweetwater U.” The project is dependent on voters approving a bond measure in 2012. In a mid-December interview, Brand said the district was currently conducting a survey to determine public support for the university and “the threshold of the tax burden” the public is willing to bear. According to Brand, the district has retained a consultant named John Fairbank to conduct the poll.
Fairbank has helped the Sweetwater district secure two construction bonds in the past. South Bay residents approved Proposition BB, a $187 million measure, in 2000 and Proposition O, a $644 million bond, in 2006. Regarding Sweetwater U, Brand told the Union-Tribune in November that “he didn’t have an estimate as to how much the facility would cost or how large the bond measure would need to be.”
The next steps toward the university will be determined by the consultant’s results, which Brand said should be available when the district returns from winter break.
The City of Chula Vista has long sought a university of its own. In a December interview, Gary Halbert, assistant city manager, reported that the City is in the process of gaining land entitlements. He said that the City is negotiating with Otay Land Company and Otay Ranch (JPB) for at least 345 acres on Hunte Parkway, close to the Arco Training Center. The developers will exchange the land and money for increased density in future developments. Preliminary environmental studies are already under way on the 345 acres.
The City of Chula Vista has been working on the university deal for a long time. As far back as 2005, the Union-Tribune wrote that the city council had “approved a 10-member citizen advisory panel and allocated $707,000 for two consulting firms to guide the effort.”
In 2010, the City paid $78,202.61 for an options and feasibility study. The study established the need for a university in the South Bay.
By 2019, according to the study, there will be a 16.4 percent increase statewide in the number of students seeking an undergraduate education. At the same time, “physical capacity pressures are being experienced by 79% of the community college districts, 78% of the California State University campuses, and all of the University of California campuses except the recently-opened UC Merced.”
However, the study contains some discouraging analysis. For example, “Of the 5,900 students graduating from the [Sweetwater] district in 2008, about one-third was eligible to attend a CSU or UC institution.”
Another dismal statistic concerns the finances of potential university students. The study found that in South Bay schools, 51.6 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
The study points out that a private university would be dependent on “significant private capital contributions for start-up and operational costs.” However, corporate philanthropy is unlikely because “another regional reality is that very few large corporations are headquartered in the county.”
The school district had hoped to build Sweetwater U in collaboration with the City of Chula Vista and to build it on Chula Vista’s property.
Brand’s calendar, obtained through a public records request, shows that he met with City of Chula Vista officials several times to discuss a university. On November 28, Brand and trustee John McCann met with city manager Jim Sandoval and Mayor Cheryl Cox. The next day, a Union-Tribune headline read “United Push on University Eludes South Bay.”
Assistant city manager Halbert said in an interview that the City of Chula Vista is not wedded to any university concept and that “all options are on the table.” He discussed the possibility of having multiple colleges on one site. Halbert did not rule out resuming discussions with Sweetwater, particularly if a bond were passed.
Meanwhile, Sweetwater is looking at another, smaller site. According to Brand, the school district is considering a 50-acre piece of land that it owns in eastern Chula Vista. Ironically, the site is adjacent to the City’s 345 acres.
Gaining public support for Sweetwater U will be an uphill battle for the district. Before the motion to go forward with the university passed at the November board meeting, many people who spoke during public comment said they found the idea appealing but could not support it. A frequently reiterated point was that the district needs to concentrate on improving the education of its students. Fourteen of the district’s schools, as well as the district itself, have been identified for “Program Improvement” after failing to make progress toward proficiency goals.
Boardmember Bertha López wants to see a university in South Bay, but she voted against the motion. In a December 19 interview, López said, “We need to spend all of our time developing and implementing instructional best practices to support our 7 through 12 students.”
However, López’s primary opposition to the university is that building it is contingent on passing another school bond. She is concerned about the financial consequences for residents of both the newer eastside and older westside areas of town. “I have a lot of friends on the eastside and the westside,” López said, “who have lost their homes or are upside down in their loans, and then we’re asking them for another bond? I don’t think so.”
Larry Breitfelder, president of the Chula Vista Taxpayers Association, says he believes that the university/bond proposal presents financial and ethical problems. In a November 20 phone interview, Breitfelder said his “phone and email accounts have been buzzing with comments ranging from troubled to outraged.”
“Homeowners are already heavily burdened from bonded debt,” said Breitfelder, “including a major recent bond for Sweetwater. Aside from the direct expense, all of these bonds make our homes less attractive to buyers at a time when values have already dramatically declined.”
Regarding the ethical problems, Breitfelder said members of the taxpayers association had expressed concern about the various scandals in the Sweetwater Union High School District. “Many of the recent controversies consuming Sweetwater have centered on the sometimes massive campaign contributions from contractors who do business with the district.”
There is a perception that a new university/bond proposal would be a boon for contractors and construction companies and would feather the campaign nests of candidates who support the endeavor. Last week, agents of the district attorney’s office raided the homes of several Sweetwater boardmembers and Henry Amigable, who had managed construction financed by the Proposition O school bond.
The district’s lack of campaign-donation limits motivated Alex Anguiano, president of the Sweetwater Education Association, to speak at the November board meeting. He said he would love to see a university in the South Bay and that in 2006 his association had supported Proposition O. However, Anguiano would not be bringing the current proposal before his association’s council, he said, because “There are no safeguards in place to prevent boardmembers from taking excess contributions from lawyers and contractors.”
Anguiano pointed to the campaign contributions made by Seville. The Seville Group was the program manager for all of the recent Proposition O construction. In 2010, Seville gave the reelection campaigns of boardmembers Jim Cartmill $20,000, John McCann $12,500, and Arlie Ricasa $10,000.
Sweetwater U is, among other things, a political football, and like a football it needs a lot of spin.
The November 11 Union-Tribune article that announced the district’s endeavor to build a university quoted Scott Himelstein, director of the Center for Education Policy and Law at the University of San Diego. Himelstein called Sweetwater U a “bold and innovative” plan. Himelstein’s statement comes as no surprise as the Center for Education did the 2010 study for the City of Chula Vista and Himelstein is named as one of the study’s authors.
Himelstein and Brand share history as well. The last time their names appeared together was in a 2006 Union-Tribune article detailing Brand’s sudden departure from the San Marcos Unified School District, where he was superintendent. According to the article, titled “Schools Chief’s Style Led to Friction,” Brand had overridden the district’s teacher-selection process in order to get Himelstein’s wife a teaching position.
Before December 31, it is anticipated that Brand will sign a three-year contract with the district.
There may be political play in Sweetwater U for trustee John McCann. He is expected to run for a seat in the state assembly in 2012 and/or for mayor of Chula Vista when Cheryl Cox is termed out in 2014. Earlier this year, the online newspaper San Diego Rostra suggested that McCann was on “the Republican bench” for the District 78 assembly seat.
At the same time that the Sweetwater district is pursuing a university, it is also moving forward with another postsecondary gambit. The board voted 3–2 on December 11 to pursue a K–16 charter school.
According to Brand, K–12 is dead as an educational model; the future student needs a K–16, or cradle-to-college, program. He pointed out that the budgets for San Diego State and UCSD are shrinking, but more students will be graduating from high school, and they will be unable to obtain an advanced degree. Approximately 6000 students a year graduate from the Sweetwater district.
“If we create it, our own students will have first priority in getting a higher education,” said Brand. He believes that a K–16 school and Sweetwater U would be compatible, that students would be able to transfer from one institution to another. A building on the south side of Chula Vista High School has been chosen for the preliminary step in this program. Brand says a prekindergarten through third-grade charter school will open in July.
“Some people say it’s about the money,” Brand said, “but it’s really about the education. If we can get them before kindergarten, we can keep them with us all the way.”
The reason some people suggest that the charter school is “about the money” is that it would draw students from the Chula Vista Elementary School District as well as from Southwestern College, a community college. Federal and state monies from those districts would then go to Sweetwater.
Like many educational institutions, Sweetwater faces severe economic hardships in the coming year. Yet, the board hired a $30,000 consultant to advance the K–16 idea. Boardmembers Bertha López and Pearl Quiñones opposed hiring the consultant. López said she opposed it because of the cost and because the district needs to focus on educating high school students.
Alex Anguiano, of the Sweetwater Education Association, called pursuit of the K–16 school “a money pit” and said the money voted for the consultant was the first money into the pit.
The consultant hired by the district to promote K–16, Susan Mitchell, said in a recent interview that there was no precedent for this kind of program. She will be presenting a “cradle to college” symposium for parents at Chula Vista High on January 12.
One large problem for the K–16 concept is the California Education Code. The code is comprehensive legislation that directs everything from curriculum and hiring practices to bond elections. When asked whether a K–16 school might encounter education-code problems, Brand speculated, “I think in the future there might be an educational zone, which would function like a redevelopment zone or a business zone.” Presumably, the code would be subject to change in the new zone.
Jaime Mercado, who served as a Sweetwater boardmember and as a principal in the district for 24 years, has already been surveyed on the bond. He said he was contacted by a firm identifying itself as FM3 Research America, which operates out of Philadelphia. He said the survey was misleading.
Paraphrasing the conversation, Mercado said he was asked if he would vote for a bond if dangerous wiring or dilapidated classrooms or asbestos were jeopardizing students’ health. Mercado said that propositions BB and O had been passed to fix these problems. He said part of the survey implied that teachers were going to lose their jobs if he didn’t support the measure. “It was like, if you don’t support the bond, you don’t support mom and apple pie.”