The Chula Vista Elementary School Board on Wednesday night appointed a Sweetwater Union school district administrator and teachers’ union official to its board, fueling concerns among some members of the South Bay community who say Sweetwater is gaining undue influence on its twin elementary school district.
The divided board decided to pick Cesar Fernandez out of a dozen applicants, despite recent poll results in which parents overwhelmingly indicated they didn’t want someone affiliated with Sweetwater to be picked.
Fernandez is the after-school program coordinator for Sweetwater and taught math for 13 years at Otay Ranch High School in Sweetwater.
The appointment to the board of directors is important in part because of its timing. Chula Vista’s board of directors will soon be hiring a new superintendent.
One of the people vying for this position is Eduardo Reyes, director of human resources at Sweetwater. Reyes served on the board of Chula Vista, but resigned on July 14 when he announced he would continue as superintendent.
The votes of the four board members were initially tied: Trustees Lucy Ugarte and Francisco Tamayo wanted Fernandez, while Trustees Kate Bishop and Leslie Ray Bunker wanted Jennifer Fuentecilla, a parent.
The tiebreaker was the total of the marks that each candidate received from the board members based on a series of questions that they answered. Fernandez scored 177; Fuentecilla scored 163.
Chula Vista Elementary powers the Sweetwater Union district of high schools and colleges.
Several members of the Chula Vista community have said they fear Sweetwater officials will “take over” Chula Vista, as Sweetwater has been involved in multiple scandals in recent years.
Over a decade ago there was the pay-to-play scandal in which construction company employees and school board members, including some from Sweetwater, were charged after the companies drank. and dinner with district leaders in exchange for school construction contracts.
And last year, a state audit found former Sweetwater employees misrepresented the district’s finances when they asked their board of directors for employee increases and when they presented information to a bond rating agency. The audit said the district mismanaged its finances, forcing it to make controversial budget cuts.
Tamayo and Ugarte have addressed this issue, saying it is unfair to label all Sweetwater employees as bad just because they are affiliated with the district.
“To say that someone has to be disqualified because they are from Sweetwater is a problem for me,” Tamayo said.
Ugarte and Tamayo both have a history with Sweetwater. Ugarte said she has been a Sweetwater teacher for 26 years; she also organizes the presidency of the teachers’ union in Sweetwater. Tamayo said he had previously worked in the Sweetwater District for 13 years.
Tamayo said he believed Sweetwater’s problems were caused by former district leaders. Ugarte said she saw Fernandez confront Sweetwater’s leadership and stand up for the students.
“Our community in Chula Vista is Sweetwater, and if we are to see a change we have to work together,” Ugarte said.
Hours before the board vote, an anonymous group of parents from Chula Vista raised concerns about the financial and organizational ties between Fernandez and Ugarte, who was elected to the board last fall.
Fernandez contributed $ 300 to the Ugarte School Board’s election campaign, according to campaign funding reports.
In addition, the Sweetwater Teachers Union Political Action Committee – chaired by Fernandez – donated $ 20,000 to the Chula Vista Educators Teachers Union Political Action Committee on September 30th. On the same day, the Chula Vista union political action committee donated $ 20,000 to the Ugarte campaign, according to campaign fundraising disclosures.
One of the key tasks of a school board is to approve contracts with teachers’ unions, regarding aspects such as remuneration, working conditions and COVID security measures.
The Anonymous Parents Group on Tuesday night called on Ugarte to withdraw from the council vote due to campaign contributions. Ugarte participated and voted in the selection of the members of the board of directors.
In an interview with the Union-Tribune ahead of Wednesday’s board meeting, Fernandez said it was entirely his decision to run for the board.
He said he applied in large part because he was a relative in the Chula Vista district. In addition to having a fourth grade son in Chula Vista, he has a high school student in Sweetwater who went through Chula Vista.
“There is nothing more important to me than his education being a quality education, and that’s a big part of why I’m going for the date,” Fernandez said. “There is no bad intention on my part as an employee of Sweetwater or as a member of the association. “
He said he was careful not to speak to Reyes or anyone on the Chula Vista board before or after he applied for the board.
Fernandez noted that others who have applied for the Chula Vista board of directors also have ties to the district. He said Chula Vista, where he has lived since 2006, is a tight-knit community where everyone knows each other.
At the start of the meeting, each of the four board members revealed which board candidates they know personally or professionally. All said they knew at least a few of the candidates, and all but Bunker knew most of the candidates.
“It’s not uncommon for people to know a board member or know someone in a district office in either district,” Fernandez said. “It’s pretty much inevitable.”
The dozen or so who applied for the board position included several parents and two school board candidates who lost in last fall’s election: former Chula Vista board member Armando Farias , who is also director of human resources at Coronado Unified, and small business owner Douglas Wolf.
One of the nominees was a former principal of Sunnyside Primary School in Chula Vista, Robert Cochran, who left school in March and now serves as Director of Safety and Risk Management at the School District of The Mesa-Spring Valley.
About 20 people have publicly commented on the selection of board members, and more people have asked the board to nominate Cochran than any other candidate. No one has spoken in favor of Fernandez.
In the District Board Selection Survey, respondents rated the survey feedback on what they wanted to see in the new board member.
Commentators mainly said they wanted a new board member who put students first, rather than special interests, such as the teachers’ union. They also said they didn’t want another board member to be affiliated with Sweetwater.
About 80 percent of the people who responded to the survey are parents.
Several parents who made public comments said the board needs to dispel the community’s mistrust of the Chula Vista board.
Laura Loza told the reunion that she and her children, including a son who is in special education, watched and waited for the school year last year while many other districts have returned to in-person learning for months earlier.
She accused the Chula Vista board of taking care of the teachers’ union by keeping schools closed for so long.
“I am here to remind all of you that unions do not represent the community you were elected for,” she told the board.
Rosi Martinez, president of the Chula Vista teachers’ union, told the meeting that the survey was not representative of district employees due to low staff participation. She said many teachers were unaware of the investigation.
She said the union’s advocacy is about children and the union represents students.