Chula Vista seeks university of its own

Sweetwater U

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.
  • 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.
  • Image by Alan Decker

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.”

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More from SDReader


Why no mention of the DA's office raiding current and former administrator's from SUHSD & Southwestern College allegedly for misusing/misappropriating bond funds?

While I believe there should be a four-year university in the South Bay region, I do not see this as a practical option.

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.

Pancho, good point, the recent DA action surely comes into play here. There is a brief mention as pasted above, but story was about the two U's and topping out at 2,000 words as raids were taking place.

Am pouring through the search warrant documents now.

Harvard? Notre Dame? Get serious McCann! That's almost as ridiculous as thinking that taxpayers would approve another bond proposal with so many officials on the take. Time to clean house.

have you received the robo call advising you of the 1-12-2012 special meeting to discuss sweetwater u?

even after all of this, they are still trying to get us to buy into giving them more of our tax dollars.

Consideration of an eventual campus for a four-year university was an integral part of the original proposal for development of the Otay Ranch. A 400-acre gift from the then Irvine Company that purchased the former Otay Ranch, on the site adjacent to Wusete Rd, was an incentive to help counter opposition from those who would likely be opposed to too much growth on what was once a vast agricultural area, and to barter for increased density in the first sections to be built on what was then referred to as the "Western Parcel". The propsed site was also seen to be environmentally sensitive/problematic and the developers believed that a desirable site for a desirable purpose would help overcome those issues.

The proposal included specification that ONLY a UC campus would be acceptable, and that an eventual UCCV would be in the pipeline after UC Merced was funded and built.

There was a community group formed and called something like the UCCV Advisory Commission. Financial difficulties for the developers in the early 1990's stalled the project, and there was some land trading between Irvine/Otay Ranch and McMillin and maybe other developer entities, with some of the land actually reverting back to the Foundation organized by the heirs of the last owner of the Ranch prior to its sale to Irvine. I do not know the current status of ownership of the 400 acres, which would be quite interesting. It is still prime property, adjacent to the Olympic Training Center.

The City Planning Department should be able to shine some light on the ownership status of the original so-called 'gift' of 400 acres and if there are still strings attached to it.

It would be interesting to see if the developers expect additional consideration on density for future projects if they are interested in 'regifting' the land to the City a second time. I believe they already have benefitted enormously from the original gift in that they received serious increases in density on their now-completed development in the Western Parcel.

while a higher education institution in the south bay interests many, the thought of the sweetwater board, including their superintendent, having ANYTHING to do with it is a turn off.

our very board has done severe damage to our district, damage that will follow us for a very long time.

sweetwater needs to focus on educating their middle/high school students. leave the university to an entity who is not CURRENTLY failing, and miserably i might add.

I am for a university in the South Bay. It's obvious Sweetwater can't even keep their own house in order. I am undecided if I would want Chula Vista to do some kind of piecemeal university.


the assistant city manager was good enough to share the land exchange contract with me with jpb, I'm going to have to spend more time with and ask questions to see if I can identify the changes.

Harvard - Notre Dame come - here? ah, that would be a NO!

hopefully someone reading this article will take the time to forward the media stories and PDF's to these fine educational institutions.

sweetwater 'pu', that is exactly what it is - it stinks of the future corruption and dirty deals of the past like prop o and prop bb. there is no way in hell that ANY taxpayer would vote a future bond in, no way, no how. we are done paying for arlie ricasa's $500.00 BevMo bill, done paying for arlie ricasa's daughters interests, done paying for sandovals daughters beauty pageants, done paying for $1900.00 meals at the finest restaurants in town. DONE!!!!! done, did i say done?

and to think the board - under then president of the board, john mccann voted to pay someone thousands of dollars to 'feel out the community' regarding their interests in passing another bond. if you listen to the board meeting audio of the night that vote was taken, many in the community told them "save those thousands, put them into the classrooms, because this community is NOT going to vote for another bond." did they listen, no, they have never listened to the community - you know the very taxpayers whose interests they are suppose to be protecting.

can someone take superintendent brand aside and give him the 411. YOU ARE FAILING TO EDUCATE THE STUDENTS YOU HAVE - GET THAT RIGHT first, AND THEN WE WILL TALK.

which leads me to another thought. what do we consistently hear at each and every board meeting "we are broke". yet at each of these very board meetings we see more and more of brands 'consultants' being hired - and the going rate is about $30,000.00 for 3 months. so tell me, where is all of this consultant money coming from? our students education? that would be a yes. they are talking about massive layoffs, the DISTRICT, the entire DISTRICT mind you is under program improvement, and 14-16 of our middle/high schools are on the states watch list and these baffoons are talking about a freaking university. it is all about the money, the wheeling and dealing - that is what really interests them. follow the money.

i am sure johnny boy mccann, the man who wants to be king, in his efforts to promote his alleged bid for the mayors office down the road, would simply love to add sweetwater u to his bio. FORTUNATELY the voters of the south bay have awakened and it is NOT GOING TO HAPPEN. and by the way we are sick of hearing john mccanns bio at each and every event he speaks at - including the cif game at olympian high.

the above are my humble opinions


can you imagine the school district if all the consultant pay went into the classroom? I understand the class size is really high--which clearly adversely impacts student achievement.

i am staying tuned for the potential of huge layoffs of teachers.

it will be difficult for superintendent brand to justify layoffs when compared to the amounts we have paid all of the consultants he has hired.

my neighbor just came knocking - his brother is an administrator with the district. superintendent brand is full throttle ahead on damage control, sending out a robo call pledging "as God as my witness he will be seeking to remove all real and 'perceived' problems within the district" (as God as my witness a direct quote, other is a paraphrase). 'perceived problems'? has this man bothered to down load the union tribunes pdf files? i mean has he really read them? if he had have he might have sent out the following robo call "as God as my witness, there is nothing i can do here - you need a new board and you need to begin a search for a new superintendent because I AM OUTTA HERE BEFORE I GET SUCKED INTO THIS".

well superintendent perhaps you might have thought about all of this before implementing that foundation. the foundation whose goal is to raise money. the foundation whose consultant (that you hired) stated 'I do not want a paper trail'.

it appears that nothing - not the DA, not the proof in PDF files, not the data on the san diego registrar of voters website, nothing is going to drive the ills of suhsd out.

but there is something, it is the power of the people to SHOW UP at the next board meeting and demand that they step down and NOW.

they really believe this is going to blow over? they really believe they are going to be able to operate as business as usual. ah, that would be a definite NO

if you care you will be there, if you care you will make time, if you care you will speak - if only to say "you need to resign NOW".

So we hear from the attorneys of one board member and one previous board member that they did nothing wrong and that there must be a mistake. Well let's think about this for a moment these people went out to expensive dinners and didn't pay, received gifts, were taken on trips and then have the audacity to say they didnt know it was wrong. Sorry folks stupidity is not a defense, maybe that is why so many SUHSD schools are in program improvement just look at the leadership. Just waiting to see when the rest of them will go down also. If a teacher or administrator was accused of any of these issues they would be placed on leave why is the board of trustees entitled to different treatment?

So to the attorneys of Ms. Quinones and Mr. Sandoval if you look at the documentation seized and provided from the DA you might not want to represent these individuals with the lame excuses you are giving to the media. At least be smart enough to say something that is educated and true.

Shame on all of the board members for being so selfish and only thinking of personal political gain.

I think that when down below freezes over another bond would pass (does that make me a consultant, where do I send my $20,000 bill?)

a lay person with absolutely NO LEGAL sense can read the pdf's provided by the union tribune and see that they are guilty. i mean really, ricasa had a $500.00 Bev Mo bill paid, her daughter had a scholarship paid, sandoval's daughter had her beauty pageant paid, 'the gandara' also had his daughters beauty pageant paid, the $1900.00 dinners????, golfing at pebble beach, the expensive new years eve stay for sandoval at one of the most expensive hotels known. and there is more, much much more money that was given to our board memberS (not just the ones who homes were searched) and they have the nerve to question the 'evidence'. OMG!!!

also in the pdf's, actual emails, stating (paraphrasing) "hey guys we have to be careful where we go to spend that $1900.00 (baci's, an absolutely fantastic dining establishment - and here is a 411 for you i know the owners (but never knew these guys went there), we can't be seen or we could be reported". the actual questions that would be asked in the interviews when bidding for contracts provided to certain bidders before hand. yes folks those pdf's paint a clear picture of the truth. oh, and least i forget quinones and one of those contractors working to get her an appt to sacramento (have you ever had a conversation with this woman?) - right,,,,,,she is just what we DONT need in sacramento.

and to think, this is but a small piece of what they needed to obtain the search warrants - wonder what else they have? wonder what they obtained in those search warrants?

AND, now that this has come out others have been emboldened to come forward and speak of the evil doings that have been going on for years. yes, it all needs to be brought forward so we can excavate the yuk and the muck, come together lay out a mantra, then begin laying a new foundation. a foundation that will consist of integrity, intelligence, truth, technology, and quality education.

quality education - those 'certain' individuals in the district office who are at the very core of lack of growth in our test scores - your inefficiencies will be exposed and you will be relieved of your high paying positions.

others as well who deal with the day to day workings of the district office - those who have mislead us - your days are numbered.

we have been empowered by the strength of those district employees who chose to stand up and say "hell no, i am not going to take this anymore".

to all suhsd employees, you have them running scared, now is the time to expose the dirty laundry by contacting the District Attorneys office. now is the time, in an effort to the day when we can let the sun shine in.

just my humble opinion

This proposal is outlandish beyond belief. The district is scandal-plagued with current board members and former administrators under investigation, it is in the process of hiring a new superintendent whose own history is, shall we say, "checkered", and it is already carrying a big debt load. If anyone in South Bay again votes for any bond issues by any school district in the area, he or she is a complete idiot. If there was any doubt as to the lack of wisdom in making school bond issues easier to pass (with a 55% majority instead of the Prop. 13-mandated 2/3) these districts should have removed it. The performance of the schools in both the case of SUHSD and Southwestern College has not improved. There should be no more good money thrown after bad money in those southern school districts. The districts need to learn to live with what they have now, and for many years into the future.

wondering how many in the south bay would donate a few $ for a full page ad in the ut or reader calling for the board and superintendent to resign?

i hear it is an idea being tossed about.


What would be the process for replacing a school board member who had stepped down?

As a general rule, vacancies on boards of public agencies are either filled by appointment (made by the remainder of the board, as was just done in the case by Southwestern College Board when Trustee Aguilar resigned) OR to call an election to fill the unexpired term.

If there is more than 50% of the term left, it is good practice to call an election if a general election is going to be held relatively soon (independent elections are expensive for the agency/district; it is considerably more economical to have an election coincide with other elections in order to avoid the extra-ordinary expense of a separate election, the cost of which the district will have to pay 100% rather than a pro-rata share of a general election ballot.)

The difficulty with appointments is that they are, of course, subject to political influences. Remember when Scott Alvey was appointed to the CV City Council to fill an unexpired term and 'promised' not to run in the subsequent election...then tried to reneg on that promise? Patty Chavez was appointed to the CV City Council to fill the unexpired term of Patty Davis. That appointment was fraught with intrigue and special interests and not a pretty sight, even though the Council attempted to set up a process that appeared to have a level playing field, even though many thought the appointment was wired by then-mayor Padilla.

Elections are generally seen as a more democtratic process to elected public servants.

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