Last year, when leaders of the Sweetwater Union High School District filled three high-ranking positions, they didn’t have to look far to find the right candidates: All three had worked for neighboring San Diego Unified.

In each case, they had help from Richard Barrera, a San Diego Unified board member who at the time also served as head of the local Labor Council.

Barrera confirmed that he made phone calls on behalf of all three employees before they were hired.

The Sweetwater school district is just now beginning to surface from controversy related to a corruption probe that ousted four of five school board members in 2014.

Last year, at least one parent saw the hiring spree as more of the same behavior that caused the initial problems: “(This) sends the message that the environment of cronyism and nepotism has not changed in Sweetwater,” the Chula Vista parent told trustees.

Barrera said there was nothing untoward about the calls he made. He saw the openings in Sweetwater as a good opportunity for employees he has worked with and knows well.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

That Barrera has sway in a district he doesn’t even work in doesn’t just demonstrate the power he’s amassed since joining the San Diego Unified board and rising through the labor ranks. It also highlights how intertwined those two roles can be: Barrera knew the employees from his work with the district, but says he acted on their behalf in his capacity as a labor leader.

A year before he made the calls, Barrera and his labor colleagues were already working to reshape the Sweetwater district’s board.

With all five seats open, he explained, the Labor Council saw an opportunity to rebuild the board with members who support labor’s agenda. They’ve been successful. Four out of five candidates endorsed by the Labor Council were voted in, including Nick Segura, business manager of the local electrical workers union.

Shortly after getting elected to San Diego Unified’s board in late 2008, Barrera helped negotiate an agreement that generally requires contractors to hire from union halls for any large bond-funded construction project. He also helped select union leaders to serve on an independent oversight committee that watches the spending.

He recruited union-backed school board members, including Marne Foster, who went on to win. In 2013, he was the first to suggest elementary school principal Cindy Marten would be the ideal superintendent.

For two and a half years, Barrera served as secretary-treasurer of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, a sort of union of unions representing the political interests of 135 unions.

During that time, he pledged to both the school district and Labor Council that his first loyalties were to them, respectively. But to Barrera, organized labor and the school district do not have different agendas. He believes the labor movement is a comprehensive solution to the problems that face the district – and society.

And he has had major impact across San Diego implementing that vision.

Scott Barnett, Barrera’s former colleague on the school board, calls Barrera “one of the most influential and least known politicians in San Diego County.”

Barrera’s Rise

Barrera doesn’t mind being called a politician. Politics is about organizing people around a vision. Any politician without one is wasting space.

Barrera’s is a deeply held belief that living wages and quality education are direct and vital routes to economic justice. He considers the rise of inequality directly proportional to the decline in union membership.

“It’s not a coincidence,” he said.

These are the beliefs that led him from El Cajon, where he grew up, to graduate school at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. They guided him to Little Rock, Ark., where he worked to revitalize a neighborhood near the governor’s mansion.

Barrera remembers Bill Clinton, then governor of Arkansas, stopping by the ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new affordable apartment complex he had worked to open.

“I drive by this place every day and I always said someone should do something about it. Well, you’ve all gone out and done something about it,” Barrera recounts Clinton saying.

In 2006, after Barrera returned to San Diego, he made a run for county supervisor against longtime incumbent Ron Roberts. Barrera ran that race on a promise that he, the son of a Colombian immigrant, was better suited to address poverty and protect social services than his Republican opponent.

It wasn’t enough. Roberts walked away from the race with nearly two-thirds of the vote.

philosophicalIn 2008, Barrera stepped onto the school board unopposed in the election and never left. He’s running for his third term, also unopposed.

Barnett speaks with frustration and awe at the number of times Barrera’s vision carried the day. The two disagreed plenty, most often when it came to the budget. Barnett, for instance, holds Barrera primarily responsible for promising across-the-board salary increases to teachers, sending the district deeper into the red.

Yet Barnett is effusive when describing Barrera: “He truly is the philosophical leader in the school district, and has been since his election. He has been and still is the most powerful and most influential board member on everything from the budget to policies, labor issues and reform issues,” Barnett said.

Those who have worked with Barrera attribute to him charming, near mythical qualities: He never carries a pencil because he remembers everything. If he ever took a note, it might be one word on a scrap of paper. One time he walked into a government agency on a whim and walked out with thousands of free bus passes for poor students. He’s not into self-promotion and doesn’t even carry business cards. Everyone, even people who hate his politics, likes him.

Bernie Rhinerson, the district’s former chief of staff who retired in 2013, attributes Barrera’s outsize influence to his diplomatic touch and respectful demeanor – and also to timing. Barrera stepped onto the board in 2008 at the same time as John Lee Evans. Shortly thereafter, the superintendent, Terry Grier, left for Texas.

A sort of leadership vacuum occurred, Rhinerson said, and together Barrera and Evans grew close with the next superintendent, Bill Kowba, in 2010. Over the next three years, Barrera and Evans met privately with Kowba and an inside circle of senior administrators to make budget decisions and chart a course for the district.

Kowba said the pair became well-researched, but that describing Barrera as a power broker was a “bit of a stretch.” He said his influence is partially a natural outcome of staying on the board for eight years.

Evans says he and Barrera stepped in at a time of turmoil and took the reins together: “We saw an incoherent sitting school board that had no clear direction before we were elected.”

The alliance between Barrera and Evans meant Barrera could always count on at least one other vote on the five-person board, said Barnett.

“You only need one more to do whatever you want,” he said. “Richard’s never had any trouble getting a third vote.”

And that was while Barnett – who often went his own way – was on the board. Since he left, two seats on the school board have gone to candidates who were supported by the teacher’s union – and the Labor Council, while under Barrera’s leadership.

What Conflict?

The question that has dogged Barrera since 2013 is the degree to which he can serve two masters.

That year, Lorena Gonzalez, then secretary-treasurer of the Labor Council, moved up to the state Assembly, leaving an opening. Barrera was appointed to the top job.

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson
School board trustee Richard Barrera speaks to Lorena Gonzalez after she was elected to California Assembly.

His executive board would include the president of San Diego’s teacher’s union, a union leader representing the district’s classified staff and other union chiefs contracted with the district.

Questions rose immediately: Was the arrangement proper?

On its surface it was a blunt conflict. As a school board member, he would be sitting across the table from teachers and other employees negotiating for higher wages and better benefits. It is their job to push for those as hard as they can.

Yet it might not be in the school district’s interest to give large, across-the-board salary increases or benefit enhancements. School board trustees are obligated to protect the students’ (and taxpayers’) interests. Barrera would have to represent that perspective.

On the other hand, he was bound to the Labor Council and its members, including the educators and classified employees.

Neglecting his members’ best interests could be grounds for discipline or dismissal, according to the group’s bylaws.

In other words, any Labor Council officer, union group or delegate could file charges against Barrera at any time for breaking rank. His executive board would decide whether his conduct merited a hearing and subsequent suspension or removal. If appealed, only then would the larger cohort of council delegates weigh in on the fate of his employment, meaning Barrera needed to toe the union line or risk his job.

The ethical agreements required by the Labor Council and school district shows each job came with a fiduciary duty to serve its respective interests.

code of conduct

Barrera said that even though both sides asked him to pledge loyalty, it’s the same situation facing any school board member who holds another job.

“In any job, the expectation is that you’re going to be loyal to that organization’s interests first,” he said. “I think anyone can understand that.”

Barrera also points out that his council salary was not tied to union membership. That is, he received no bonus for bringing in new members.

School district staff and trustees wanted clarity. Outside legal experts provided the district with an opinion that stated Barrera could hold both jobs without conflict. They did, however, note particular concern with the dozens of unions with district contracts.

“It is our recommendation that he consider recusing himself from decisions involving trades union parties to the (project labor agreement),” and that he exercise caution when voting on matters related to the teachers or classified employees unions, wrote attorney Mark Bresee.

The opinion didn’t address the two pledges Barrera took, or the fact that some of his votes – those to increase or decrease the number of district teachers or support staff – would impact the Labor Council’s revenues, since dues are paid based on worker counts.

Barrera led the council from May 2013 until December 2015 and made $110,000 a year. Despite the attorney’s caution, he did not sit out a single labor vote or discussion. District officials said they never advised him to.

He did help negotiate labor deals and voted on union contracts, approving raises, restoring furlough days and approving early retirement deals even when the district didn’t find enough interested retirees it said it needed to save money.

Barrera says that he never had to recuse himself because no unions with which he was negotiating ever paid him. Rather, he was paid by the larger umbrella council, though it subsists mostly on their dues.

Barrera is unabashed about his commitment to labor. Supporting teachers’ rights is supporting kids.

“People might say, ‘You’re prioritizing the interests of teachers above schools.’ Well, you take two steps back from that statement and ask the public, ‘Does that make any sense to you? That the interest of teachers are not the interests of schools?’” he said.

Regardless, the question of competing allegiances is now less timely. In December, Barrera – whose term on the Labor Council wasn’t up until April – resigned abruptly and moved over to the local United Food and Commercial Workers, where he will take over as secretary-treasurer.

Barrera said he changed jobs simply because the position was a better fit for him. It’s a smaller and lower-profile role than he previously held. But Barrera said he prefers to organize workers, which he’ll be doing more of for UFCW.

‘More Than a Little Incestuous’

Barrera had already done a lot to further union interests years before taking the Labor Council post.

Almost immediately after getting elected to the school board in late 2008, Barrera and his colleagues began closed-door talks to negotiate a labor agreement that would limit who could bid for billions of dollars in school construction work to come from the newly passed Proposition S bond measure.

The agreement would mandate decent pay and benefits for construction workers, and with few exceptions, contractors would need to be hired through labor halls.

The union pact was approved in July 2009, less than a year after Barrera’s election.

Barrera said the so-called project labor agreement was a priority of his from the start and that he played a leadership role in getting it through. Because one goal of the agreement was to hire workers from impoverished San Diego neighborhoods, Barrera saw it as a kind of job-creation program and means to combat local poverty.

“We want to use this multibillion-dollar construction program to actually help stimulate job creation in the neighborhoods where our kids live,” Barrera said. “Poverty matters, and to just throw up your hands and as a school system, say, ‘There’s nothing we can do about the conditions that our kids live in,’ is irresponsible.”

The agreement has since expanded to cover even more bond work. Board members committed future bonds to the same union-only rules in 2012 less than four months before voters passed the $2.8 billion Proposition Z bond measure. Combined, it was a boon for unions.

Barrera managed to place several union leaders on the state-mandated taxpayer oversight committee charged with independently policing Proposition S and Z bond projects.

In 2013, Barnett and Barrera pushed to amend the oversight group’s bylaws. Among other things, a representative of the San Diego Building & Construction Trades Council, a major PLA signee, would get a permanent seat on the committee.

Barrera says labor leaders are perfectly suited to provide oversight for bond spending because they are experts. Besides, he said, members of the oversight committee have no say on where bond money will be spent. They simply monitor whether projects are being completed on time and on budget.

To Jim Ryan of the Association of General Contractors, who advocates for non-union contractors, the PLA is a win for unions and nothing more. He says the agreement drives up prices, meaning the district gets fewer school improvements from its bond money.

An independent analysis commissioned by the district in 2011 found lofty local hiring goals weren’t being met and there were fewer project bidders on average. More recent numbers from last year also found the district was short of its goals to hire 70 percent of its workers from local neighborhoods.

mindRegardless, San Diego Unified has been held up as a model for other districts across the county.

Since San Diego Unified signed its project labor agreement, Southwestern College, the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District and the Chula Vista Elementary School District have all followed suit. At least one other, the Sweetwater Union High School District, is in active union negotiations.

“I think, in his mind, all this helps the working man,” said Ryan, who clashed often with Barrera on construction matters. “Is what he’s doing illegal? Maybe not … But it’s more than a little incestuous.”

A Public School Leader, Chosen Out of Public View

In February 2013, the San Diego Unified School District was at a turning point. Kowba, then the superintendent, informed school board members he would resign at the end of the year.

Three years earlier, when the board selected its previous superintendent, it searched for four months before settling on Kowba.

During a closed-session meeting following Kowba’s announcement, trustees met to plot a course of action. No candidates stood out immediately. Someone in the group would float a suggestion, board members would discuss, then they’d move on.

That’s when Barrera says he first mentioned her name: “What about Cindy Marten?”

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson
San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten and trustee Richard Barrera.

She wasn’t an obvious choice. Superintendents of large urban districts often have years of experience as a high school principal or senior-level administrator. Marten was an elementary school principal.

“I threw [Marten’s] name out there. And the minute I did, everybody in the room stopped what they were doing and thought about it for about five seconds. Then, the entire conversation shifted from who we should select, to the more practical issues of whether she was qualified, or if she’d even want the job,” Barrera said.

Board members called Marten to ask if she was interested. She was. With no search, Marten would lead the second-largest school district in California.

Even she later expressed how uncomfortable it was to get the job that way.

The board likely violated the state’s open-meetings laws by choosing Marten in that closed-session meeting without any public notice. But it didn’t really matter. The school board officially voted on Marten at the next public meeting.

Both Barnett and Barrera remember the way Marten was selected with a hint of regret. Each admits it wasn’t a public process. They also share a justification: They already knew they wanted Marten to be superintendent and they thought it would be dishonest to go through the motions of a public search.

But had they not selected Marten in the process they did, Barnett questions whether she would have been chosen at all.

“We knew there would have been a lot of sharp knives out from people who thought they could do the job better or for whatever reason thought they deserved the job more than Cindy,” Barnett said. “I thought at the time there would be enough backlash that one or two board members could change their vote, and that’s why I supported choosing Cindy in the way that we did.”

Barnett said it will take a few more years to see the results of Marten’s work. In a large urban school district, improvement takes time.

Barrera, however, is unwavering in his support for Marten. As principal of Central Elementary, Marten leveraged relationships with nonprofits that funneled food, health care and social services into her school. She mobilized parents. She spoke in soaring rhetoric. She built a nursery so the mothers who taught at her school could come back to work faster.

Today, three years after she was appointed, Marten is trying to implement similar reforms districtwide.

To Barrera, she is a warrior on the front lines in the fight against poverty. And she happens to be carrying out an agenda that aligns perfectly with his.

    This article relates to: Education, School Leadership

    Written by Mario Koran and Ashly McGlone

    Mario Koran asks questions and writes stories about San Diego schools. Reach him directly at 619.325.0531, or by email: Ashly McGlone is an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. She can be reached at or 619.550.5669.

    Fotis Tsimboukakis
    Fotis Tsimboukakis subscribermember

    Watch for the heroes you wish for. This is not even an education or a community hero. 

    He opposes Charter Schools yet sits on the board of one and both his kids attend one. Strike ONE.

    Being pro labor is his ONLY plus. Ball ONE.

    He does not have a mind for the educational betterment of the communities. The YES vote in the leasing of the Innovations Academy site in Scripps Ranch of severely already overcrowded Schools, showed that. Strike TWO.

    His 2014 vote to sell the 9.5 acre, 180 buildable units site in Point Loma to Monarch Development a devout Democrat Developer, at half the market price shows little business sense (or much political loyalty and why not, future visions of other benefits). Strike THREE.

    Leasing the Scripps Ranch site to the SAME Monarch Development for a PITTANCE vs market rates is Strike FOUR. 

    How long will this guy be allowed to roam education halls in this town while SCREWING UP EDUCATION AND IT'S FINANCIAL FUTURE?

    Anywhere else he would have been gone, long before the third strike. 

    Don't fool yourselves that people like Barrera help improve education. People that run their own agenda, ruin it.  The teachers are generally good everywhere. What makes some areas exceptional is the parents and communities active participation in the school system, NOT the Barreras who are NO different that the religious fundamentalists they purport to fight against.     

    Anniej subscriber

    Fotis - it appears there are many kool-aid drinkers. No doubt good people who have chosen to follow the Pied Piper vs. chart their own course. I am wondering how many of those paying those Union dues have a true understanding of the PACS their dues fund?

    It takes a great of time and work to research the issues our Boards face - far too many Biard members are seduced by the lure of a title and choose to follow vs lead when votes are cast - failing to do their due diligence.

    Little do they realize when they loose their perceived status, they once again return to being like you, like me - simply one of us. And yes they will be remembered by the stories that were written about them - in this case a most negative light. Those that once made them feel important will forget their names and faces as they move up the chain. Those that were used - silly little people............

    As one of my neighbors said yesterday after reading this story 'with what Barrera publicly stated in the Voice of San Diego about -, and -, and - who needs needs enemies - he exposed them for what they are and why they are there and it has nothing to do with education or kids'.

    ***** again, just my opinion

    DDunn subscriber

    Supported Marne Foster and Cindy Marten.....hmmm, yikes!!

    Good luck Sweetwater!!


    Don Wood
    Don Wood subscriber

    I'm sure that the Association of General Contractors appreciates this hit piece against the school board member it hates the most.

    While Barrera's union affiliations are interesting, I would like to see a more comprehensive article detailing how the SD Unified School District has faired while he has served on the board. Is it's annual budget balanced? How much debt does it carry directly due to school construction bonds. How much debt does it have because of past union agreements with its teachers and staff.

    If Barrera has leaned toward the interests of the teachers while serving on the board, but still helped maintain a stable financial situation for the district, I'm not sure what the problem is. On the other hand, if the school board has been driving the district's finances into a ditch, that would be more newsworthy than this particular profile article.

    Fred Schnaubelt
    Fred Schnaubelt subscriber

    From its beginning the so-called labor movement (Unionization) has been about keeping out competition. First it was Negroes, women, children, and immigrants.  It's done in a more sophisticated way today as the L.A. Times reports the losses of jobs due to increases in the minimum wage.  The main agents provocateur of the minimum wage hike are union stewards.who have contracts that require all higher paid union members be paid a higher wage commensurate with increases in the minimum wage and to hell with everyone who loses their jobs whom are not paying union dues.  Richard Barrera is right about education being the key to a higher income and knowledge of how low income people are screwed everyday by unions.

    francesca subscriber


    At the last board meeting, Andra Donovan reported that money had been approved, to defend San Diego Unified against a lawsuit by the Voice of San Diego.

    Is this about a Public Records Request?

    francesca subscriber

    Barrera should have stuck with what he knew.  Labor..Break a few legs, twist a few arms...not much to know.

    But for him to choose his personal puppet, his friend, the woman he said was like Rosa Parks and Cesar Chavez rolled into one, Cindy Marten...I'll pause while you go back to the above picture...Barrera gazing into Marten's eyes...

    Yet, as her personal puppeteer, he knowing nothing about education, the result, over three years..has been devastating.

    First, Cindy fired Mitzi Lizaraga, at Foster's request. Cindy never held accountable by the board for this crime.

    Cindy fired a hundred plus principals, hiring incompetent replacements, she proposed "voodoo education" with the wave of her magic wand. 

    She destroyed the Language Learner program. 

    Marten hired her best friend and principal with the lowest test scores in the district,  Cruella "Staci" DeVille, to run the district, ...with a reign of terror.

    Barrera...Puppeteers should know how to direct their puppets. You are a failure at that.

    Anniej subscriber

    Well, it appears Mr. Barrera has confirmed what the SUHSD community has been saying for months - a true substantiated influence of SD Unified on SUHSD - THANK YOU MR BARRERA!!!!   SUHSD Board members, looks like Mr. Barrera sort of ambushed you all - no longer will certain Board members  be able to sit up there on the dais and claim no relationships with SD Unified and or the Labor he represents.  Again, THANK YOU MR. BARRERA!!!!!!

    This community fought hard for campaign reform a few years back, we stood arm in arm with Labor sickened over the influence big money had on our School Board elections.  Then after we accomplish a $750.00 limit what happens?  A PAC is formed and big Union dollars flow into our last elections.  Legal - YES, ethical - you be the judge.

    Campaign promises - oh we heard lot of them - Forensic Audit, Term Limits, Maintenance & Facilities reform, and a new ethical Superintendent.  Happy to report WE DID 1 - an ethical Superintendent, whose primary focus is a quality education for our children.  So, it looks like we are 1 out of 4.  The price tag of Term Limits concerns certain members of the Board, yet these same Board members didn't even blink at the price tag of a new BOND.

    Now if you ask certain members of our Board a PLA is the answer to the MAJOR concerns this community has regarding Maintenance, Facilities and Construction.  According to a few of them changes have been made.  Hopefully the soon to be released Prop O Audit will substantiate that claim (but dont bet your childs college education fund on it).

    And then there is the new BOND that Mr. Segura is fighting hard for.  Even after a presentation indicating there was not enough time, even after District personnel stated they are currently over worked - he is pushing for a new BOND to be brought back to the Board.  Will he be able to vote on such a BOND?  HMMMMMMMMM

    And so, today is a sad day in SUHSD territory - because we see, while this communities hard work did accomplish a new Board - in truth, the 'majority' of them, are simple clones of what we had in the past.  While there is much discussion of the positive attributes of one of them and the good intentions of another - NOT MUCH HAS CHANGED IN SWEETWATER TERRITORY - HOW SAD IS THAT!!!!  

    While some will attempt to paint me as anti Union, nothing could be further from the truth.  i support and recognize their value - what I do speak against is undue influence and the attempt of the majority of this Board to paint a portrait of who they are, who they are there for and what they represent.  

    How on Gods green earth can certain Board members look at themselves in the mirror knowing they have become users vs. servers?  Surely our students deserve better representation, surely we taxpayers have earned the right to have quality 

    representation.  And while 1 of ours has publicly stated 'he doesn't care what people think', WITH ALL DUE RESPECT - HE SHOULD!

    francesca subscriber


    I agree, 100 %... Pro Union, but against personally ambitious egotists, who disregard the needs of both children and workers.

    sosocal subscriber

    @Anniej Special interest groups that hijack public funds for their own benefit do seem to come in all shapes and sizes.  We who maintain concerns over Sweetwater's future do see problems here.  I know that unions are an important part of what makes things work here in the US, but too much power is too much power. 

    Sweetwater still needs that forensic audit.  Sweetwater needs strong bond Oversight Committees.  Sweetwater needs the school board members to cooperate with what the public is asking for.  Should we approve another bond now.  Absolutely not.  I for one believe that there should be a citizen's group that studies all the past bonds from the past 20 or so years, comparing what was built against what was claimed would be done. 

    Why is it that the same projects keep reappearing in bond proposals, yet never get done?

    We also need a Bond Oversight Committee for all Mello-Roos funds.  It is a complete disgrace and shame that those funds have been used in ways that are clearly against all the rules and regulations--but--there apparently exists no entity that is capable of taking responsibility for the enforcement of the Mello-Roos rules and regulations.  I guess it is all just a big splash fund for fun and games at the district?

    Anniej subscriber

    SoCal - you raise many of the concerns that continue to cause the community to question their votes. Concerns regarding the financial stability - while we were advised Forensic would be too expensive, where is the increased Financial Audit Scope we would have expected Paula Hall to call for - not a word. Her answer, Mr. Kowba is now part of the Audit Subcommittee she heads - Kowba, as in SD Unified Kowba. Mello funds intermingled way back when - 2 1/2 years ago we were told break out would take 2 months. Prop O Audit of LAST YEAR recommended changes. - well, this years is in and the community is anxiously awaiting the results. Hopefully it will notify us changes have been made and things are on the right track - however with Paula Hall's recent Board meeting comments,indicating positive changes have been made, of which Kevin Pike concurred - if there has not been progress - well that too will be on the shoulders of Ms. Hall as she also 'sat' on the Facilities Subcommittee AND stated publicly at a separate Board meeting - she had accomplished what she set out to do, in reference to the PLA vote - so she would no longer be on that committee. Facilities/Maintenance community members, NOT THE BOARD, exposed there has been no Best Practices for Warranties - millions of dollars later the community exposes it - where was the self education of the Board, why didn't they uncover it? All of the PLA new BOND preparation I am sure.

    So here we sit close to a year and a half in of the new Board being elected and we have little to show for it, not that a Superintendent who is admired and trust is unimportant.

    What this story has laid out is simple THE MAJORITY OF THE BOARD (who have connections with Mr. Barrera) have been far too focused on promoting Big Labor vs. honoring their promises to we the tax paying voters.

    The community now makes reference to the 'Odd Man Out' - the 1 Board member who walks to the beat of his own drum. A Board member who appears to dislike the taste of kool-aid and chooses instead PURE CLEAN WATER!

    ***as always just my opinions, and yes I know what they say about opinions.