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.”
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.…”
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.”