Sweetwater Union and Chula Vista Elementary districts to merge?

“It is a very complex process, and there are more questions than answers right now."

Chula Vista councilwoman Mary Salas
  • Chula Vista councilwoman Mary Salas

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.”

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Well I guess it's the early start to election season, all of the incumbants and political wanabes need to start getting their names out in front of the public, McCann with his one man Facilities Inspection and now Ms. Salas with the "Unification" discussion.

My first thought is where have you been over the last 4-5 Years? But really longer than that 10 years, during which many of our elected officials sat back and watched Sweetwater Union High School District fall apart?

From the original L st, 3rd ave Zoning/Land swap debates, to deficit budgets, and Alleged Criminal behavior, not a peep. Now an idea to Unify a very good elementary district with a poorly run, weak High School District? Where were the demands for an accounting of the SUHSD operations, Prop O, Mello Roos, all things that lower the value and strength of our cities and the rest of the south bay area? These things are and were the City Councils and other elected officials (County Board of Education, Sweetwater Trustees?) responsibilities....

The only value I see in the Unification talks is it will open up a dialog amongst the public and the public will see the shambles this adminstration and board have left the SUHSD and the communities of the South Bay.

To our sitting Politicos ... finally you are getting it, but the timing and motive are suspect... This should never have been a reelection or promotion stunt to get your name out there. SUHSD was the job you all should have been on top of to protect the reputation and once strength of our community.

See you at the discussions.

BBQ CAVE, Citizens Active for Value in Education

Bbq, I believe you said it well. Why would CV Elem.want to encumber Sweetwater's debts? Why ruin a good thing. More pomp and circumstance to come until after the election. After we get a few new board members and a new supt.we will be on a long road to recovery. This district use to be considered one of the best years ago.

This sort of talk is premature with Sweetwater in a high degree of turmoil. When, if ever, SUHSD gets its house in order, unification might have some place in the local political discourse. For now, it would be really ridiculous.

Unification is not as difficult to do as some think. About fifteen years ago, when the Escondido Union High School District finally kept its long-standing promise to built a high school in Valley Center, things happened very rapidly. Insiders knew exactly what would happen, and the paint was scarcely dry on the new, lovely high school when the small Valley Center K-8 district combined with the tiny Pauma Valley district and unified. That meant the new district snatched the new VCHS away from EUHSD, and closed the school to students from outside the district. Many Escondidans felt cheated, and for good reason, their bond issue money went disproportionately to the new school, and now it was unavailable to them, even if they wanted their kids to attend it.

More recently, Bonsall had its K-8 district unify, and it doesn't have a high school! Its students can still attend Fallbrook High, but the district is OK with the kids going anywhere else in the area that will accept them. As a result, many Bonsall students are now attending the new, third Vista USD high school, Mission Vista High, located on Hwy 76, very close to Bonsall. Eventually Bonsall will get its own high school, and now that it has that task, can begin work on one. This unification may have had some political motivations, but they didn't face the sort of financial impropriety, corruption, and confusion that now exists in Sweetwater.

On the other hand, unification is no slam dunk. About ten years ago, when the Grossmont High school district was riven by factionalism and some corrosive elements, along with an arrogant and unpopular superintendent, the K-8 district in unincorporated Lakeside wanted to wrest control of their high school away from Grossmont. The ballot measure failed in large part because the teachers at El Capitan High vigorously opposed the change. And that was rather hard to understand because they were being regularly attacked and abused by the GUHSD administration under Superintendent Godley. Some people just don't like change, and will stick with the devil they know.

Too often, in the period after unification, the high school flounders because the elementary district is generally clueless about the operation of a high school, and fails to recognize the far greater degree of complexity involved in running a 9-12 school. That was the case years ago in both Oceanside and San Marcos, when their high schools were an afterthought to folks used to running elementary and junior high schools, and both districts had some really run-down and neglected high school campuses that were weak in academics.

When I first heard of the merger idea, the potential of cutting administrative costs came to mind, but that was before I read that John McCann was for it. I'm not sure if Salas is sincere or just acting out a political strategy, but by now we should all have McCann's number.

Susan, can you contact Mary Salas's office and ask her what her motivation/rationale is for exploring unification? To say that the Ed Code gives her the power to do it isn't good enough. Didn't she contact people and do her own research? If nobody is interested (school districts, community, SD County Board of Ed) why waste everyone's time? Unless she has a plan that spells out the benefits to the community, especially the children, she's misusing her position.


Thanks for your thoughts. During council comments, Salas mentioned that the County would be in charge of a lot of the details. She intends to invite County Ed Supe Randy Ward.

I did send Salas's twitter site a direct message early Wednesday, but haven't heard back yet. I admit to being a twitter novice but this method has been effective in the past.

Pardon me if I sound like Debbie Downer, but I am highly skeptical of the sincerity of this effort.

The timing is what gives it away for me.

It could be just another distraction, another means of keeping the public off the trail of the missing money.

Which is why, I will again remark, "Nothing should take place until all the financials are completely in the open, all the real estate deals have been make completely public (including all the 'players' involved from start to finish) and there isn't a single Ed Brand deal, scheme, scam or plot still threatening the district in any way."

You want a forensic accounting done so you can find out which administrators serve to gain from converting public schools to charter schools? The reorganization of Sweetwater Union High School District will smooth over any money discrepancies, and you will never get the list of names you want. We'll move ahead with our fatter bank accounts. Remember it is all for the children, so they can learn. If anything goes wrong, we'll accuse a teacher of something horrendous, and use that to distract the media, and then of course we will fire the offending teacher and come out smelling like roses. So everybody just mind your Ps and Qs, remember we have access to your technology.

Extra points awarded for sarcasm that hits the mark!

As I mentioned in another comment Natl City did a study a few years back on this very issue - what they found was they could not financially afford it. The State most likely would shoot this down on arrival as they would not be interested in bailing out those community dIstricts that do not have the tax base to support their own school district.

In any event the idea just might bring the States attention as to what is really going on, where is the money. I would encourage Ms. Salas to contact the State Dept of Ed and the Federal government and ask for a full audit. The books of ALL State and Federal programs must be opened. Putting an end to SUHSd corruption would endear any candidate from any party.

Additionally now that we have Hueso's attention write him and ask for the same.

I would like to highjack this story and send out a heart felt THANK YOU to the person (whistleblower) who put the spotlight on the SUHSD firealarms issue. This community owes you a debt of appreciation.

WHISTLEBLOWERS -Come one , come all - the corruption must end now. Fiscal mismanagement must not be tolerated!

I'm really suspicious about the timing and motivations behind this proposal because it follows the current education policy coming directly out of Washington DC.

Where did Mary Salas get this idea? Would Libby Gil, the former Superintendent of CVESD and current employee of the USDOE, have any connection to this? Did Arne Duncan throw out this "suggestion"? I ask because this proposal is directly in line with Louis V. Gerstner Jr.'s proposal to eliminate 15,000 school boards across the United States ("Lessons From 40 Years of Education 'Reform': Let's abolish local school districts and finally adopt national standards.." Wall Street Journal, December 1, 2008.)

Isn't it odd that Republican John McCann supports the education deform plan laid out by President Obama's education adviser? Democrat or Republican, career politicians do not answer to the people; they are well aware of who butters their bread.

Read what Diane Ravitch has to say about this proposal: http://www.forbes.com/2008/12/01/gerstner-schools-business-oped-cx_dr_1202ravitch.html

I think they should merge Sweetwater Unified School District with the California Department of Corrections, that would be a perfect merger because that's where the Sweetwater Board belongs!

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