Scores of angry parents — their young children in tow — jammed the cafeteria of a San Ysidro elementary school recently to complain to the school board about dysfunction, corruption and poor education in their challenged community hanging onto the very corner of the United States.
Despite the clamor, trustees seem bored, there are no reporters or camera crews from commercial media, and even many of the red-faced parents and teachers acknowledge that this kind of noisy outpouring is nothing new. Welcome to the San Ysidro School District, where rowdy board meetings, patronage politics and stumbling academics converge at an international crossroads like no other on Earth. Sadly, say teachers and parents calling for progress. Beleaguered San Ysidro has been a bastion of hijinks, pettiness and backwards thinking since the 1980s. It is also a community that is part of the Southwestern Community College District and one that sends thousands of students to SWC.
Educational leaders from other San Diego County districts shake their heads sadly when asked about the latest round of controversy in the nine-school district with 5,500 students. A former superintendent of a nearby district called San Ysidro “one of America’s most dysfunctional school districts of the last three decades. I feel sorry for the kids there. The so-called grown-ups who run the place just can’t get along and consistently fail to do the right thing.”
San Ysidro was recently pulled into the South Bay Corruption Case pursued by the San Diego County District Attorney. San Ysidro board member Yolanda Hernandez and the recently-severed superintendent Manuel Paul have been indicted on a number of corruption and conspiracy charges. Other recent controversies in San Ysidro include:
•A charge that Paul accepted an illegal cash campaign contribution for a San Ysidro board candidate in the parking lot of a Chula Vista steak house.
•Outrage that the governing board gave Paul a $10,000 raise after the steak house transaction came to light and just before asking for his resignation.
•Raises of $10,000 given to some administrators shortly after the district closed schools for a week of furlough.
•Rapid promotions and hefty raises for the son of a governing board member who is an SYSD administrator.
•A takeover of district finances by the San Diego County Office of Education to stave off a more drastic state takeover.
•A $4 million deficit for fiscal year 13-14 requiring a 13 percent cut from its budget. County experts say the district will have to cut another 18 percent in FY 14-15 and FY 15-16.
These recent headaches come on top of reports that San Ysidro has the lowest student success rate in the county (and one of the lowest in the United States), and a dispiriting low number of students from the community who graduate from college. Most who do graduate never come back.
San Ysidro’s bare-knuckle educational politics stem from many factors, according to educators, but an overarching cause may be that the school board is the only elected political body in the community. Most of San Ysidro is within the city limits of San Diego, even though the community is several miles away from the southern edge of metropolitan San Diego. Years ago San Diego grabbed control of San Ysidro and its world-famous international border crossing, by annexing a one-inch thick stripe of land out into the ocean and down to the border, thereby claiming that the San Ysidro region was “contiguous” and legal to annex. The result is a completely cut-off, isolated and poverty-stricken community out of the limelight, out of sight and out of mind.
San Ysidro does have a San Diego City Council member to represent it, but historically the District 8 councilmembers have been overwhelmed and outvoted by members from metropolitan San Diego. Most District 8 councilmembers serve one term then either run for a different office or call it quits. At least three in recent memory have been driven from office for corruption or other illegal activities.
“San Ysidro has been taken advantage of by so many people for so many years,” said the former superintendent. “It is a difficult place to be a teacher and work. There are a lot of really dedicated teachers down there that are working hard to make a difference and many of them do. Those teachers are really the soldiers on the front line. It is too bad they don’t have better leadership and support.”
Jeff Scarlett, a 25-year teaching veteran in San Ysidro, said that young San Ysidro students need not only excellent teaching – more than 90 percent do not speak or write grade level English – but also need help to see “the bigger world.”
“All the classrooms at Sunset Elementary are named after colleges,” he said. “Why? To get the kids into college. We take field trips to San Diego State so the kids get to walk around to see how cool it is.”
Most field trips have been cut, however, the victim of funding shortages. Parents acknowledge that the state of California has pared down educational spending, but many insist poor leadership and outright corruption drain even more funding away from the classrooms. Olga Espinoza, whose children attend Smythe School, said too much of the district’s general fund goes to lawyers, investigators, paying fines and giving undeserved raises to district leadership.
“Our board seems to put money towards paying the legal fees of an openly guilty board member rather than into the kids’ classrooms,” she said. “Such a waste.”
Carol Wallace, president of the San Ysidro Educators Association, said meaningful change must come soon or the district will continue its downward drift.
“Teachers in San Ysidro and all employees in the San Ysidro School District deserve better than having an admitted felon come back to be their educational leader,” she said.
Wallace said San Ysidro has lost its way and the people with the power and responsibility to turn things around lack the ability and integrity to do so.
Rudie Thomas, a parent of a San Ysidro student, said the district is strangled by a culture of corruption even worse than Southwestern College and Sweetwater Union High School District have endured in recent years.
“What we need to do is change that level of corruption, to end it,” he said. “We need to take the power away from these people and put power back into the hands of good people and our schools. That’s the only way things will change down here.”