How Did We Get in This Mess at Southwestern College and Sweetwater Union?

Raj Chopra was paid $100,000 
to walk away.
  • Raj Chopra was paid $100,000 to walk away.

On June 21, Sweetwater Union High School District bought out superintendent Jesus Gandara’s contract for $416,675. Last November, Southwestern College paid superintendent Raj Chopra $100,000 to walk away from his contract. Prior to the buyouts, both South Bay districts were immersed in scandal, beset with allegations of contractor-related corruption. Now many are asking, how did the school districts get saddled with these guys?

Sweetwater hired Dr. Gandara in 2006, and Southwestern hired Dr. Chopra the following year. An Illinois-based executive search firm called Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates brought both men to the South Bay. Both districts paid over $30,000 for the service.

Typically, a search firm advertises nationally and thins the applicants down to three. Sweetwater board minutes describe what Hazard Young promised to do for the high school district: “Specifically, this consultant screens and interviews candidates, performs reference checks, prepares the board members to interview candidates including assisting the board in developing interview questions, and counsels the board regarding the search.”

Executive search firms, or headhunters, as they are called, wield power. “Ultimately, it is the consultant who anoints a short list of candidates to be presented to board members, a ritual that secures the consultant’s role as kingmaker,” writes Christopher Hann in a District Administration magazine article called “Landing the Chief.”

Hann quotes a San Francisco school board member who opines, “Commercial search firms tend to have their own stable of candidates.”

Hazard Young’s stable appears to have included Chopra. The firm’s website takes credit for placing Chopra in two consecutive superintendent jobs: at Phoenix Union High School District in Arizona and Southwestern College.

Chopra had known controversy long before he arrived at Southwestern. In July 1994, the Houston Chronicle wrote that Chopra “reportedly is the subject of a board-approved investigation into unspecified illegal activities.” In January 1995, the Chronicle confirmed that Chopra had been “ousted” and that his contract had been bought out for $200,000. Nor did the superintendent finish out his contracts in Marple Newtown, Pennsylvania, or Phoenix, where he left an embattled situation when he took the job at Southwestern.

Initially, Southwestern had planned to have Russell Bloyer of Maas Companies handle the search for a new superintendent. Bloyer was the district’s general contractor for construction funded by Prop AA, the $89 million bond passed in 2000. He submitted a five-page document to Southwestern’s board that listed criteria the candidates should meet. The document repeatedly calls for someone with community college experience.

In a recent interview, Bloyer said he couldn’t believe it when he heard that the board had hired Chopra. “Chopra had no community college background, no shared governance experience,” said Bloyer, “and he came to California from a right-to-work state,” a state where employees can opt out of union membership while receiving union benefits. “He had no experience working in a collective bargaining environment.”

Jesus Gandara was “found” by the same search firm as Chopra.

Jesus Gandara was “found” by the same search firm as Chopra.

A year earlier, at the Sweetwater Union High School District, the board was considering Jesus Gandara as their new superintendent. Gandara had recently been superintendent of schools in Mercedes, a town of 15,000 located in the southern tip of Texas. At Mercedes Independent School District, Gandara was responsible for 5000 students; Sweetwater Union had 42,000 students.

Sweetwater board members Arlie Ricasa and Jim Cartmill flew to Texas to interview Gandara. Their flights, hotel expenses, and car rentals cost the district $2305.87.

Ricasa said in a recent interview that in Texas they talked to Gandara and “a cross section of people who had worked with Gandara, including former board members, community members, and employees of the Mercedes district.” She said that the board was “looking for an educational leader” and that the main focus was on academic qualifications.

However, another criterion, Ricasa confirmed, was a willingness to work for a new school bond. “We were just finishing up with Proposition BB,” she said, “and our facilities still needed a lot of work.” The $187 million provided by Proposition BB in 2000 was gone, and the district wanted voters to approve more bonds.

Gandara had a track record of getting school bonds passed. The Union-Tribune reported in an August 8, 2006 story, “Gandara was superintendent at Mercedes Independent School District for eight years, during which time voters passed three bond measures to build and renovate schools.”

Raj Chopra had similar qualifications. A few months prior to being hired at Southwestern, Chopra had overseen the passage of a $25 million bond referendum for the Phoenix Union High School District.

After they were hired, Gandara and Chopra hit the ground running. The same 2006 Union-Tribune article that announces Gandara’s selection as superintendent states, “Gandara will lead the Sweetwater Union High School District as it pursues voter approval of a $644 million school bond measure on the November ballot.”

At Southwestern, when Chopra arrived in mid-2007, the district was still working with funds from Prop AA. But by November 2008, Proposition R was on the ballot, asking voters for $389 million in new bonds for the district.

Less than three weeks after Prop R passed, Southwestern issued a press release crediting Chopra with the victory. “The broad-based community support Prop R enjoyed…was a direct result of Dr. Chopra’s strategic networking efforts with business leaders and community civic groups.…”

Corner lot  The biggest controversy surrounding Proposition R was 
the development of the vacant lot at the corner of 
East H Street and Otay Lakes Road.

Corner lot The biggest controversy surrounding Proposition R was the development of the vacant lot at the corner of East H Street and Otay Lakes Road.

The biggest controversy surrounding Proposition R was the development of the vacant lot owned by Southwestern at the corner of East H Street and Otay Lakes Road, one of Chula Vista’s busiest intersections. Previous attempts to develop the lot had met with strong community opposition due to concerns about increased congestion. At one time, the college had been compelled to cancel a deal with developers who wanted to put in a Borders bookstore and a Trader Joe’s.

After Proposition R passed, corner lot development went into high gear. At the height of the recession and during a building bust in Chula Vista, million-dollar contracts were signed with program directors, architects, and contractors. A gala was held at a swank restaurant in May 2010 to unveil the architectural design.

On the occasion of the event, Chopra wrote an email to William Attea, of Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates. According to the public records request for that period, this is the only email Chopra sent out for the gala. “Dear Bill: You are invited. This project has been in the making for over ten years. With a lot of controversies surrounding it. We brought it to closure.…”

Attea wrote back, “At present, I am planning to attend the celebration. Bill”

The original start date for corner lot development was April 2011. However, due to continued contactor-related scandals and leadership changes at the college, the lot is still nothing but 2.6 acres of dirt.

Many people interviewed over the past year have suggested that the flood of bond money ushered in a new way of doing business in the South Bay and may account for the troubled tenures of both superintendents. Yehudi Gaffen, chief executive of Gafcon, likens the construction culture in the South Bay to Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s.

In both school districts, the program managers who successfully handled the earlier bond money were summarily dumped after passage of the new bonds — Proposition O at Sweetwater and R at Southwestern. Maas Companies had managed construction for Southwestern, and Gafcon and Harris & Associates had managed construction for Sweetwater.

Gafcon had been selected by a panel of staff and outside experts to handle Proposition O construction. However, Gandara complained of mismatched stucco and twisted rain gutters and chose Gilbane/SGI (Seville Group Inc.) to do future work, although the panel had ranked Seville next to last. In a recent interview, Yehudi Gaffen said, “We were selected by a handpicked, blue-ribbon panel to be the program manager for Proposition O, and then we were unselected by Gandara. This practice [of ignoring the ranking] is unusual, unorthodox, and usually means that someone higher up did not like the result. What’s particularly vexing is we had nothing to do with the buildings singled out for shoddy work.”

Both Gandara and Chopra hired the same man, Henry Amigable, to manage their districts’ multimillion-dollar bond projects. Amigable worked for Gilbane Construction from February 2006 to March 2008, managing Proposition O construction at Sweetwater, and then in April 2008 he slid over to Seville Construction to manage Southwestern’s Proposition R construction.

Last year, the Union-Tribune exposed a wine and golf junket taken by Henry Amigable with then-Southwestern vice president Nicholas Alioto and Chris Rowe of Echo Pacific. Rowe had bid $15,000 for the trip at a silent auction held during a gala put on by the college’s foundation.

Part of Amigable’s job as program manager involved “assisting in evaluating bids” and making recommendations “concerning the acceptance or rejection of bids.” After the trio returned from their weekend of golf and wine tasting, Rowe’s contracting business, Echo Pacific, was awarded a $4 million contract for work on the corner lot. In January 2011, Southwestern trustee Tim Nader confirmed that Amigable was no longer Seville’s program manager. Amigable now works for Echo Pacific.

A tantalizing invoice, acquired through a public records request, casts doubt on the integrity of the college’s bidding process. The invoice was submitted by Seville Construction to Southwestern College requesting reimbursement for binders and paper that Seville had ordered for the bond oversight committee. It was dated June 2009, five months before Seville was hired to manage Prop R funds. The call for bids did not go out until three months later, in September 2009. Seville was hired to manage the bond construction that November. A call to Jeff Flores, chief executive for Seville Construction, concerning this invoice was not returned.

While Chopra and Gandara walk away with their pockets full of taxpayer dollars, their regimes are reportedly under investigation by the district attorney’s office. Southwestern has called for an extra audit of Proposition R spending, and Sweetwater is considering another audit of Proposition O spending.

Meanwhile, Southwestern College is conducting a new $26,000 search for a superintendent using an executive search firm called Community College Search Services. Sweetwater Union’s board has not discussed search firms yet, says board member Ricasa, but she is “open to looking, reviewing, and interviewing a variety of firms.”

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Arlie Ricasa says she is “open to looking, reviewing, and interviewing a variety of firms.”

Well, bully for Arlie! I have had enough of her poor judgement! She flew to Texas to meet with Gandara before hiring him and then had 93 meals with him on the credit card.....and she never saw anything that smelled bad. She has outlived any usefulness she ever had. IT IS TIME TO MOVE ON. ARLIE!

It appears that the folks who vote to approve these bond initiatives are getting fleeced by the unholy alliance of headhunters and the school boards that hire them. These executive search firms churn their clients from district to district with no concern for their actual performance. The school boards don't seem to have any expertise on which firms might recommend the best candidate. I would ask, Is there a backdoor financial arrangement between these two entities? Do the chosen executives pay the headhunters for a successful appointment? From a taxpayer's perspective, rewarding these shady characters with precious tax dollars to go away is just tragic and adds insult to injury.

Interesting questions Woodchuck. Some people have even asked, do we really need these companies? As money is tight, all things have to be considered.

Susan, you are doing a great job. If more reporters produced articles like this, San Diego would be in better shape soon.

Have you noticed the UT's "Watchdog" (more like lapdogs, but I digress) have taken credit for the Sweetwater story? According to them, they're the ones who did the investigation and brought this scandal to light.

If there's any integrity in journalism, you'll win an award for your work over the last year in the South Bay, Susan.

(If The Reader hasn't given you a nice bonus, it certainly should!)

I'm your devoted fan. Thank you Susan!



What we have here is a failure to communicate!

These rollers, high and low, live in a heady world of self-deception--they truly believe they are pillars of the community, possessed of some amazing talent that the rest of us should not only pay them their "just deserts," but bathe their feet and worship the water upon which they doth walk.

Once when working in "middle-management" of a large city government, I was allowed to "participate" in yet another management "reorganization." The "facilitators" asked us to submit ideas, even crazy ones, "to increase efficiency and save taxpayer dollars."

In my naivety, I made two suggestions:

  1. a. Put all of the job descriptions in a hat. b. Have all the present employees pull one job out of the hat. c. Let them trade jobs.

  2. Eliminate Civil Service/Personnel/HR; let the people who need help recruit.

I hope that if an investigation leads to charges and convictions, those who fleeced the public will be forced to repay. And you're right Fred Williams, I have also noticed how the UT has a problem with seemingly never citing the San Diego Reader as one of their sources of information.

WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED? At least members of the public should seek out the names of applicants and google them because board members certainly don't seem to be doing that. If anyone with an iota of common sense had checked out Gandara, Chopra, Alioto or Dave Garcia (City of CV) they could have seen the disaster coming. What I think is happening is they (boards) hire these turkeys and then try to prop the turkeys up so the board doesn't look like it made a mistake.....a sorry and expensive way of doing business.

Hey Fred,

I have to say your comment made my day. Thanks.

In truth, the UT reporters have been ahead of the curve on the Sweetwater stories. Sweetwater has been neglected by the media for years now and it's good to see more light being shone on the district. There are some strong and relentless community activists there which advances the situation as well.

And, I think we're all lucky that the Reader supports investigative journalism.

I value your comments, Susan

If Fred's a fan, I'm a fan.

How about some links to support your contention that the UT reporters were ahead of the curve?

Susan, I must second the comments above regarding the quality and value of your reporting on this ongoing mess of scandal. Keep up the good work!

To digress a bit, having Chopra claim credit for getting a $25 million bond issue passed in Phoenix is a scream. In a city that size, that's chump change. It could barely pay for a single new school, and likely sailed through "under the radar."

You report that these regimes are under investigation by the DA. She's had plenty of time to look at Chopra, and nothing has been forthcoming. If they are under her investigation, that may be a means of forestalling a federal investigation. After a couple years of "intense investigation" the result will likely be that no charges are filed and the report is that nothing criminal occurred. I'll be the most surprised voter in the county if this DA files any charges regarding either district.

Final comment: those headhunters are supposed to check out these candidates closely. But there have been plenty of cases over the past couple decades in this county where districts have unwittingly hired candidates whose records are "checkered." A recent one is the case of the current Vista Unified superintendent. What are they paying those people to do when they have them conduct a "national search?" It appears that often they do little except read the self-congratulatory promotion put out by the candidates and pick the three biggest liars for further consideration. Perform reference checks? Maybe, but that isn't obvious. Counsel the district? Well, if they don't hire your candidate, you don't get paid do you? (Maybe they get paid anyway, but that's unlikely.)

Excellent reporting, Susan.

Didn't the UT post a hand-written exit contract with Gandara? Why would a highly sophisticated attorney not have on hand a computer and a printer? That seemed odd as if to appear they just thought of drawing up the contract.

I don't think the district can move forward as long as they have the same attorney firm.


you're right about Phoenix though research shows that Chopra did bond or facilities work several previous districts...

The DA investigations are also open questions. We do know that one Southwestern superintendent, Zasueta, was brought down due to an investigation, so....

wouldn't it be wonderful to be the proverbial fly on the wall in so many of these meetings?

Here is what i would do with regard to these search/HEADHUNTER firms, I would sue them for fraud.

If they are placing "their own" candidates in these jobs, like what is cited here in the article, and then these candidates screw up royally, to the point they need to be bought out (another jnke, why buy them out if they are not performing???... let them sue for breach and fight it out in court) then the searxch firn has been negligent, and more than likely also perpetrated a fraud.

Sue the search/HEADHUNTER firm, sue them for negligence and fraud. Recoup some of the TAXPAYER $$$$$$.

But then again, we have the same problem in this alternative plan we have in all of gov, they are using and spending other peoples money, not their own so they don't care. Moral hazard-who cares, not their money.

Yes, the district could sue the search firm on the basis of it having failed to properly vet the candidate and having failed to provide a complete picture of the employment record. But, unfortunately, that would only be a windfall for the district's already overcompensated law firm. Would/could they ever recover enough from the firm, which probably has no assets and hides behind some sort of LLC form, to pay for the litigation? Probably not. Would that sort of thing, repeated a few times by a few school districts, make these firms actually do the job? Maybe, but I would not count on it. It would probably just get them to put more disclaimers into their contracts.

What I'd rather see is local school districts looking locally for prospects. There seems to be a belief on the part of these boards that nobody qualified is going to be found locally--you have to look to a far distant city for a credible candidate. (Vista got this one from Pueblo, CO, but she wasn't from there actually. She hails from Tennessee or some such place. Just a typical carpetbagger, going from city to city getting a big pay boost each time.) The batting average of districts that actually grow their own administrators right up through the level of superintendent is better than those that waste huge sums on these "national searches." Next best is to hire someone from a nearby district whose record is out in the open. People who are interested in the job will apply if it is publicized.

CHULA VISTA ELEMENTARY SCHOOL DISTRICT has gone "the home grown" route by hiring Dr, Francisco Escobedo. So far, so good from what I hear. But they don't have a board filled with mad dogs trying to climb the political ladder as they do in SUHSD. I don't trust the current SUHSD board to choose a new superintendent. Period! They simply can't demonstrate a strong concern about 42,000 students and their teachers. I hear the talk but I don't see the walk!!

It appears to me that their primary concern is about not losing that lovely money that flows into their campaign coffers from from building contractors and those connected to them. CONFLICT OF INTEREST!

The real issue here is not how how "we got into this mess," but how we get out of it. Without a major shift in priorities on those school district boards, they will just repeat the same mistakes again and again. I don't quite follow how this sort of massive corruption and wrongdoing can occur right in the middle of a major county in this state. Is there some sort of mental disease that goes with living south of I-8, or actually south of SR-54?

Susan, don't stop; there's another "search" underway for the VP of Business and Finance. Check out the three finalists: one has been on administrative leave; one was hired previously and quit the first or second day for a higher paying job that he seemingly doesn't have or needs to leave; the other, don't know about. Unfortunately the beat goes on and on and on.

I've read a few comments here to the effect of doing google searches on candidates for administrative positions at both SWC and SUHSD. Well, SWC is about to hire a new VP of Finance. I really hope some of the hiring committee members are reading this discussion. Why? One candidate walked away 2 1/2 years ago 10 days after being hired for a better-paying position and is now back. Hmmmmm, I wonder why? Another candidate has been suspended and terminated from another CA college district.

And the beat goes on ......

The reason that these 2 clowns were hired was that the elected boards that oversee the schools were corrupt. In the case of Southwestern College, the faculty worked very hard to get board members Yolanda Salcido and Jorge Dominguez "dis-elected" and things are now much better at the college. I hope that the same can be done at SUHSD, because clearly the same issue exists there. Electorate: be educated because it does matter!

Thanks for the tips BJ9 and Mynameis...sometimes watching the administrative shifts is similar to watching a shell game....

With reduced budgets, layoffs and larger class sizes. Someone must be held financially or criminally accountable for these Multiple SNAFU's

Moreover who is the new headhunter CCSS, looks like they don't even have their own web site. Be nice if we hired a California based company?

Dr. Kevin M. Ramirez, Primary Search Consultant Community College Search Services (CCSS) Telephone: 530-878-6288 Mobile phone 916-871-2069 E-mail: [email protected]

Dr. Al Fernandez, Principal and Search Consultant Community College Search Services Telephone: 805-650-2546 Facsimile: 805-650-8469 E-mail: [email protected]

Dr. David H. Ponitz, Higher Education Consultant President Emeritus Sinclair Community College Dayton, Ohio Telephone: 937-434-6640 E-mail: [email protected]

Dr. Jim Walker, Search Consultant Community College Search Services Telephone: 818-879-2112 E-mail: [email protected]



I did find a website. The website also lists one completed search for an interim superintendent as well as the ongoing search. I am not sure if that refers to Whittaker?


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