Sweetwater Union High School District trustees decided to take no action on a controversial agenda item that would have granted $1.3 million in legal fees to four trustees who have been under investigation by the San Diego County District Attorney in the South Bay pay-to-play scandal. Trustees let the agenda item die without motions at the end of a volatile seven-hour meeting.
Nearly 800 people packed the Hilltop High School gymnasium and sat on folding chairsand wobbly bleachers shouting “Shame! Shame!” and holding up signs with doctored photos of trustees behind prison bars. On the agenda were items to grant $400,000 each to indicated Sweetwater trustees Arlie Ricasa and Pearl Quiñones as well as former trustee Greg Sandoval. A fourth item sought $100,000 for trustee Bertha López whose home was searched by the district attorney but who has not been charged. Former Sweetwater superintendent Jesus Gandara was also indicted and has legal fees guaranteed in his severance package. Gandara was fired in June, 2011. DA investigators also searched the homes of former Southwestern College administrators Nicholas Alioto and John Wilson. They have not been indicted, though District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said more indictments were possible.
Ricasa and Quiñones took the brunt of the audience’s wrath, depicted as criminals behind bars labeled “Felon” on homemade signs held aloft by angry members of the crowd.
Ricasa said none of the board members had been convicted.
“We do have that presumption of innocence,” she said.
Derrick Roach, president of the San Diego County Republican Party, said that the board had been careless.
“What a mess you guys have created,” he said. “All of you need to start paying attention now.”
Sofia Reyes, Chula Vista Hills Elementary School sixth grader, received the loudest ovation of the evening with her admonition of the board.
“My parents work hard and pay taxes so their kids can go to school,” said Reyes. “That money should not go to the board members’ attorneys, it should go to the kids in the school. Next year, when I go to middle school, I hope to be proud of my district, not ashamed of what they’ve hidden from us. Write these words in your heads, board members: integrity, unselfishness, kindness and always be truthful because the truth will set you free. Do the right thing, board members.”
Juan Carlos Hernandez, a high school senior in the district, told the board he was ashamed of them.
“I don’t want to shake any of your hands at my senior graduation,” he said.
The board had some allies. A portion of the bleachers was filled with Ricasa and Quiñones supporters. Nick Serrano, SWC ASO elections coordinator was one. Though he did not come forward to speak, several others did. One of them was Olympian High School senior Jacob Muennich.
“I completely support that you all should vote for the legal fees,” said Muennich. “All the teachers are here because of Pearl. Pearl is a great person. She’s been a great mentor to me. I wouldn’t been in the school I am with a 4.0 GPA if it wasn’t for her.”
Community member Lorraine Ramirez also stood up to defend the Sweetwater board.
“The school board members are being prosecuted by public opinion,” said Ramirez. “The public would like to tar and feather them and set them on fire. But we all know as Americans that we have the right to be represented, in particular when individual freedoms are at task. And that is a big burden. Not just on the people that are going to have to go through this, but as a public we have allow them to be represented because the cases are very strong and have a human impact.”
Ramirez said she also believed the prosecution was racially motivated.
“What concerns me also is that minorities are being targeted,” she said. “Hispanics and women have been pointed out. I also want to point out that your comments are politically motivated. The process is blemished.”
Some members of the audience were critical of McCann for sending a robocall message to all Sweetwater parents that was paid for by the San Diego County Republican Party. Ricasa, Quiñones, Sandoval and López are all Democrats.
McCann’s call urged parents to attend the meeting and oppose the granting of legal fees. Dumanis has denied that she is targeting Democrats or elected officials from South Bay. Earlier District Attorney prosecutions of Chula Vista City Councilman Steve Casteñeda and political operative Jason Moore were not successful and brought considerable criticism upon Dumanis and the District Attorney’s public corruption team.