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Corruption, Synthetic Drugs, Academic Performance Discussed at Sweetwater Education Summit

An education summit was held at Eastlake High outlining Sweetwater Union School District’s slated projects for the school year and discussing recent controversies plaguing the district.

Faculty, students and parents gathered at Eastlake High School’s auditorium Thursday evening for an education summit.

The corruption case concerning former Superintendent Jesus Gandara, Proposition O and inquiries into the district’s alternate education high school were examined, among other topics. Attendees were invited to participate by responding to prompted questions following each section of the presentation.

Superintendent Ed Brand, who became the district's leader following the departure of Gandara due to allegations of corruption, hosted the summit, and outlined 10 issues the district intends to try and tackle this school year.

Brand began the evening by discussing the district’s policy of putting the needs of the student above all else, and showcasing the Compact for Success program, a partnership between SDSU and the district.

With the Compact for Success program, Brand called the a “K-16 community”, allowing for students to stay connected to the district from kindergarten through college graduation.

Discussing the growth of global competition among students and the need for stronger education, Brand kicked off his presentation by saying, “We are part of the success story California, and America, needs. It begins right here, right now.”

Corruption and Food Services

The recent controversy surrounding Gandara was discussed during the food services part of the presentation. 

Gandara was accused in April of charging thousands of dollars on a district credit card for meals, well more than his monthly $800 allowance.

“They will not be allowed to stain the credibility or integrity of the Sweetwater Union High School District,” Brand began, discussing those involved in the scandal. “If found guilty, we will cut them out, just like you would a cancer.”

Following the controversy, the district brought in independent auditors to examine department spending, who made suggestions to ensure any future criminal acts will be noticed much sooner.

At the conclusion of the investigation, the district implemented the suggested measures, which included changes to the accountability and oversight systems already in place, as well as new hiring procedures and standards. When prompted, 87 percent of attendees approved of the proposed measures.

Legal Services

Brand raised concerns about the amount of money the district formerly spent on legal fees and services. Citing $1.6 million in last year's spending on legal services, Brand proposed cutting the presence of a general counsel during school board meetings, which the district estimates could save $500,000. Instead, the district would refer to legal specialists in the event counsel is needed. Eighty one percent of attendees agreed with the idea.

Synthetic Drugs

Brand made a point to warn parents about the rise in synthetic drug use among high school students such as crushed bath salts and Spice.

A full-length presentation on the dangers of synthetic drugs and its growing use by young people will be held next Thursday in the Eastlake High School auditorium.

Finance

Due to state budget woes, school districts across California have received deferred payments from the state, resulting in difficulties for districts to make payroll.  

Statewide, more than $9.3 billion in school funding have been deferred. Brand explained that the district sought out opinions from four financial advisors to determine the best means of borrowing to make payroll. Options being considered are a financing package, as well as internal borrowing with interest between established funds.

Prop O

Proposition O, a bond measure to fund improvements for several schools including and Southwestern High School, underwent an internal audit to examine the spending and progress of the construction projects, as well as a review of changes made during the projects. When comparing the change order frequency for Sweetwater Union School District with other districts’ change order frequency, a study found that Sweetwater was within a normal range for school construction projects. Brand admitted that the frequency was not great, but vowed a decrease in frequency as projects continue.

Since Prop O was passed by voters in 2006, more than $200 million in upgrade and construction projects have been completed within the district. Audience response to Brand’s suggestions for oversight, however, was less than desirable, with only 44 percent showing satisfaction with the proposed oversight and accountability measures.

College Preparedness and Charter Schools

The school board has approved A-G courses as the default curriculum for the district. A-G courses are courses required by California colleges to be completed before being eligible for college entrance.

In the Sweetwater Union School District, the A-G completion rate held steadily at 35 percent for the past several years. Brand wants to see that number rise but “required A-G curriculum may leave some kids behind, or with limited options. Everything we can do will be done to see that every student has options following high school,” he said.

As charter schools grow in popularity, parents with students entering late middle school and high school are spending more time considering alternative education routes for their children.

Brand, who said he “never felt charter schools were the answer to the education issue,” called for fair treatment and consideration of the Sweetwater Union School District during parents’ selection periods.

The superintendent cited several of the school district’s offered options for students, such as multiple foreign languages, expanded visual and performing arts, technology, health services and engineering outlets, state-of-the-art science labs and the Compact for Success program as being on par with programs offered at charter schools.

Brand asked that contact information for those parents considering schooling outside of the public system be made available to the Sweetwater Union School District, saying “we should have the opportunity to pitch our programs along with the charter schools.”

Castle Park High Credit Recovery and Bounce Back Alternative Independent High School

Brand addressed controversy over an experimental program at Castle Park High that would allow for students who were performing poorly in certain subjects to work with teachers to improve their skills before moving on with more advanced subjects.

When students retest following their work with teachers, their first (poor) scores were to be averaged with their post-tutoring scores.

Allegations that grades were not being averaged, but instead replaced with the often-higher tutoring grades, was investigated by the district. Disciplinary action was taken, and higher standards for staff training are being implemented.

The Bounce Back Independent Study High School—an “alternative education” school for students who prefer a more focused, less traditional method of learning—came under fire for allegedly offering a lower quality education to enrolled students.

A state investigation was launched into the program. Following the investigation, the district implemented all state recommendations. Brand explained that the curriculum and materials used between schools are identical, with differences lying in method and style of teaching.

Brand confidently predicts that following the implementation of digital learning tools (online courses, etc.), that 75 percent of all students will be using the BBISHS.

The summit ended with Brand highlighting the district’s accomplishments, namely its 27 Golden Bells, distinction as a Title I district, state and national recognition for excellence in education and a 578 percent rise in college preparedness due to the implementation of the Compact for Success program.

Brand called on parents to hold the district and its faculty accountable for their actions, but also to rally behind the district, looking optimistically to a future of growth and success for students and the district as a whole.

“We’ve gotten better, and we’re getting better. And we will continue to improve. We owe that to our students.” 

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