“The culture of the district was basically based on retaliation, intimidation. Those are the two words that I can think of,” said former Sweetwater school board member Bertha Lopez.

Exactly six years have passed since Sweetwater schools superintendent Jesus Gandara was terminated at 2 a.m. on June 21, 2011 following seven hours of closed-door meetings.

A raucous crowd of 500 people gathered in a high school gymnasium the evening before to attend the Sweetwater Union High School District board meeting, many to demand better from their school district leaders. Some hoped Gandara’s departure would close a dark chapter in the district’s history dominated by stories of malfeasance.

But what was supposed to be the end was only the beginning for leaders of California’s largest secondary public school district, which spans from the city of San Diego to the U.S.-Mexico border.

An investigation of Gandara’s activities, as well as the Sweetwater school board and contractors by the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office would last a few years and end in various criminal charges, including felony bribery and conspiracy. A couple Sweetwater leaders landed behind bars.

Much has been written about the DA’s case, the outcome and the troubling decision-making that occurred on Gandara’s watch.

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

But there is a story behind all those stories that has yet to be told, about the six individuals who set the whole thing in motion by demanding accountability from their local school leaders and going to the district attorney for help.

“I felt like if we didn’t do it, nobody else would, and these folks would continue to get away with crimes,” said parent Stewart Payne.

“The public has more power than they think that they do,” said parent Maty Adato.

“Did I think justice was served? No. Not only no, but hell no,” said grandparent Kathleen Cheers.

Payne, Adato and Cheers were part of a group of mostly parents and concerned community members who spent years faithfully attending public school board meetings, scouring documents and sounding the alarm when students were shortchanged by district leaders.

To mark the six-year anniversary of Gandara’s termination, we put together a special podcast to allow them to share their story, their motivations, challenges and the sacrifices made along the way. They also have advice for others who want to see change at their local government agency.

Listen to the podcast hereSubscribe to Good Schools for All on iTunes or get the RSS feed hereRead the full transcript of the show.

    This article relates to: Education, Good Schools For All, Must Reads, School Leadership

    Written by Ashly McGlone

    Ashly is an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. She can be reached at ashly.mcglone@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5669.

    John H Borja
    John H Borja subscriber

    The problems of Sweetwater Union HIgh School District still exist. "Ghetto" schools, Southwest HIgh School, Montgomery HIgh School, San Ysidro High School, Chula Vista High School, Sweetwater HIgh School, and Castle Park are still suffering from the overt income split in demographics with other Sweetwater High schools. 

      The bottom line is things have not change for the better at such schools as Southwest High School because the culture at the District has not changed. 

    Management remains the same....poor. How can the District continually favor high demographic schools over low demographic schools? 

       It's really not a joke, but every year children graduate from Southwest High School and are accepted at top universities in the U.S. and actually go there. 

    So, inspite of near total neglect at Southwest High School, the children persevere and achieve at top levels. 

         The facilities at Southwest HIgh School have not improved over the last ten years. The athletic facilities are as bad today as they were in 1994. So, has Sweetwater Union High School District caught up with "deferred maintenance"? No. 

          Have academic facilities been improved for second language learners and homeless children and low income children at Southwest High School? No. "Same ole, same ole...." 

           And, finally, Southwest High School is not a community based organization. Community activities do not abound on campus. 

           When you look at what Sweetwater Union High School District has as strengths, you consider how the weakest, most vulnerable parts are faring.

    Answer? Not well.

    Ben Dover
    Ben Dover

    @John H Borja 

    Good points

    In regards to Southwest High, I will tell you they have had a good leader there for the last several years. Their leader has no affiliations with the mexican and pink mafias. He has held people accountable there and at his other schools he has led (Montgomery High and National City Middle). Part of the problem is the board member in that area. When that board member is replaced, you might see improvements at that site. 

    I encourage you to dig deeper (you too Ashly). Some of these schools you are referring to as "ghetto schools" are thriving better than you think. The high schools along with their feeder middle schools. For the last several years, the top ranking schools in attendance in the Sweetwater district have been the same 3-5 schools on the westside (not schools on the eastside). Why? Perhaps its because people at those sites actually work, rather than perhaps pop off on twitter about themselves or attend mundane district trainings, which takes time away from student achievement. As a matter of fact, there were more district trainings than any year before where teachers and administrators had to leave their sites. "Putting Students First"? Okay? Also, Dig deeper and look at some CAASSP data. You will see that some westside schools in specific subject areas and grade levels are destroying some of the east side schools in student proficiency. Especially in low income, and re-classified english learner proficiency rates. These schools are thriving because of the personel at those sites, along with the students and parents that support higher level rigor. The success of these sites has absolutely nothing to do with current district leadership, or the majority of the school board.

    Back to Gandara. From what I observed, he was a fan of west side schools and offered more support to them any superintendent I have seen so far. That is why it's important to find a "OUTSIDER" to lead the district. Someone with no affiliations to the mexican and pink mafia. Another problem with these two groups is that some of their "leaders" that are administrators cozy up to the union. Kinda different. Not the type of people I will have a beer with.

    Ben Dover
    Ben Dover

    Here's an unknown story behind a unknown story. Before I begin, I have personally never met Jesus Gandara. I do know Ashly McGlone to be a credible reporter. 

    When Gandara was superintendent, he dismantled 2 ineffective power groups within the district, both that have demonstrated notorious nepotism tactics when it came to hiring and promoting people. The mexican mafia and the "pink" mafia. What happened is that API numbers went up at most sites during his regime. A teacher stated in the podcast that administrators moved struggling high school students to learning centers. I cannot verify that this comment is true or false. But what about the middle schools? Some of the schools API grew from 100 to 200 points. There are no learning centers for middle school students. So the comment made by Mrs. Brinkman cannot be entirely true. 

    Next, Bertha Lopez...uhum...come on. Bertha has criticized schools in the district, credible district employees, and credible community leaders under a various blogger name that many people are aware of now. She talks about rumors of her having affairs with administrators in the podcast. Really Bertha? Ooookay? This woman has caused ridiculous unnecessary drama within the district for the last decade and is the head defendant of a lawsuit against the district for wrongful termination of a employee, which will have cost the district over 6 figures. Many credible people associated with the district and community are glad she is gone. She has and will continue to throw anyone under the bus.

    Ashly is a credible and effective reporter. Respectfully, I am suggesting that if Ashly or anyone wants a story to be completely credible, that they do not include a quote from Mrs. Lopez in their story. Check out this editorial for more evidence. http://laprensa-sandiego.org/editorial-and-commentary/editorial/grossman-or-lopez-not-much-of-a-choice/

    Let me state that I DO NOT condone the illegal actions Gandara conducted as a superintendent. A higher lever of justice handled the situation professionally and what is done is done. Some good was done under his watch though. Moving on, if Sweetwater is to do better as a district in 2017 and beyond, a leader needs to be appointed that has no associations with these 2 mafia groups. They need to be dismantled (again), and other various individuals (with no associations to either group) should receive credit that are actually doing the real work and boosting student achievement, hence the slogan "putting students first".

    Lastly, grade inflation under Gandara was mentioned in the podcast. Fact is grade inflation in Sweetwater has happened more now in 2017 than it did back in 2011. This wasn't a Gandara issue. It's a issue that has been enabled by others currently in the district. This should also be investigated.

    Nick Marinovich
    Nick Marinovich subscriber

    It has been an honor being a member and Chair of the Bond Oversight Committee to serve with these Community members. They did and are doing their part for a better Sweetwater Union High School District.  It is fantastic they are getting the credit they deserve for the countless hours and grief they endured.  Never once did I hear from them what is in it for me?  Unlike those despicable Board members, staff and consultants who fed at the trough.

    It takes a diligent public to follow what is going on and pry when things do just not seem right.  Trust me there are Districts in this County where the Bond Oversight Committee should be asking a lot more questions.  There is an organization who can help out these Bond Committees called the California League of Bond Oversight Committees (www.calboc.com).

    What is the lesson learned here..if something does not seem right..ask more questions.  If the answer is we do not have it or not in plain English ask even more questions. You will begin to recognize early on the government bs routine.  

    If the same consultants who give to campaigns and measures seem to be getting the same contracts with those Districts make sure there was a fair and open competition process.  To do this right takes effort, persistence and a dose of skepticism on everything.  That is not beilng a nuance..that is being a good citizen.

    Thank you Maty, Kathleen, Fran, Bertha, Stewart and all the others who stuck their necks out.  Oh who can forget Ashly too.

    Steve Miller
    Steve Miller subscribermember

    Wow!  You are all an inspiration.  Thank you for your service to your community and for the great example you have set for others.

    Also, any news article referencing Ms Lopez being convicted of misdemeanor should cite this article for background.

    sosocal subscriber

    This is a testament to the determination of some courageous, public-spirited individuals and the will and ability of a select group of journalists who were strong enough to keep going against all odds.

    The more one learns about this, the more it is apparent that there was even more behind all of this that should have been--should be--exposed!