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An investigation into the Sweetwater Union High School District superintendent eventually snowballed into a massive scandal that resulted in convictions for several school leaders and dominated the news for years. Missing from most of those stories was the small, devoted group of parents and community members who set the whole thing in motion.
“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.
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.