By Jerry Rindone
For the past several years, the Sweetwater Union High School District has fallen into financial and legal problems resulting from a lack of quality leadership, a failure of vision, and a resulting lowering of service to the educational needs of its students. For 70 years, my father, myself, and my two brothers served the district. My father Joseph was superintendent for 20 years. My brother John was superintendent for five years. My brother Howard was an administrator at Castle Park, and I was assistant superintendent of adult education and then principal of Hilltop High School.
Recently, Mary Salas, a Chula Vista City Council Member, proposed unification of the Chula Vista Elementary School District and the Sweetwater Union High School District as the solution. Based on my experience of 16 years as a member of the Chula Vista City Council, 4 years as an elected member of the San Diego County Board of Education and 38 years as a professional educator, I must take the opposing point of view that a merger of this type would not be constructive.
The Chula Vista Elementary District is a well-funded and well-managed district with proven expertise in educating the K-6 students of Chula Vista.
The Sweetwater Union High School District is a large and unique district with a rich and successful past. Unfortunately, the district is currently facing a number of challenges including ineffective leadership, large debt, poor funding, and has had a poor relationship with the labor unions.
None of these challenges faced by Sweetwater would be improved by unification with Chula Vista Elementary. In fact, they would be compounded with other problems faced through trying to form a new leadership and administration structure, managing the large secondary population with a smaller elementary population spread over a large and diverse geographical area, and the difficulty of providing equality of funding for diverse populations with different needs.
Adopt Geographical Selection of Trustees
The leaders of Sweetwater have had great difficulty dealing with the large influx of construction and growth monies and the associated problem of relating to contractors who desire the business associated with that money. In my 20 years as an elected official, I have faced numerous offers of a free lunch with serious and expensive strings attached. It is a cliché but the only ethical and legal response is to “just say no.” The Sweetwater District must re-establish trust in its leadership not only from the community but also from its employees and the businesses that serve the district. One avenue to reestablishing that trust is to make the change to elect trustees from geographic areas within the district. This will bring in leaders who are focused on the diverse needs of the communities that they serve.
Managing districts that provide a quality education for primary and secondary students are unique and separate skills. Chula Vista Elementary and Sweetwater have proven expertise in their particular areas of expertise. Combining their administration would not impose good over bad but would force a long period of assimilation and growth peppered by turf wars and power struggles.
On Feb. 25, Mayor Cheryl Cox stated her opposition to the merger primarily because the two districts have different cultures. But more importantly she said, “We must help the high school district re-establish a working relationship with our community.” I strongly support her sentiments and I vow that, as Mayor of Chula Vista, I will work to support the Sweetwater Union High School District to work through their problems without trying to interfere by imposing an outside solution.
If the unification plan passed even the earliest hurdles, the San Diego County Board of Education then must approve the plan. Their primary criteria is that the plan fairly serves all of the K-12 children in the affected area. That means that a viable plan would have to include the elementary districts in National City, San Ysidro, and South Bay. None of those districts would be willing to take on the massive debt currently held by Sweetwater. District unification plans are complex and contentious even when all parties are in favor of the plan.
I share Salas’ concern for the need to solve this problem, but her proposed solution is neither constructive nor well thought out. The Sweetwater District, at its core, is a strong and robust institution. I believe that the district will find a workable set of solutions that will get it back on track to best serving the students of the South Bay. Members of city government and the community must stand by with talented members to fill the open leadership positions for the district, an inventory of supportive ideas that do not interfere with the process, and a reasonable period of patience for the district to begin solving its own problems.
Jerry Rindone is a candidate for Mayor of Chula Vista. He is a lifelong educator in the South Bay, a 16-year member of the Chula Vista City Council and a four-year member of the San Diego County Board of Education.
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