Norma Hernandez, Tim Nader and Humberto Peraza have the courage and vision to end SWC’s suffering and steer the college into an age of rebirth. Part of their wisdom is their understanding that the college has to come clean and put all of the misdeeds of the past out into the light before SWC can really be free.
Our college suffered on all levels – academically, administratively, publicly and politically – when SWC’s previous administration chose to erect walls of secrecy and chicanery. Backed by a dysfunctional 4-1 governing board majority, the prior administration’s lack of transparency and blatant secrecy from 2007 – 2010 disgusted the entire community, leading to a toxic atmosphere that has proved epically destructive.
Raj K. Chopra, Nicholas Alioto and the board led by Yolanda Salcido brought the college to the brink of being shut down by its accreditation body. Little did we know they would also lead us into the biggest corruption scandal in San Diego County history.
Captured by Chopra, SWC’s annual golf tournament and Educational Foundation fundraisers became vehicles for money laundering and influence peddling. Instead of filling scholarship funds, these once-cherished events filled campaign warchests. With no regard for the Brown Act or the American value of open government, the board and administration hid documents and punished inquisitive faculty. “Transparency” and “openness” vanished from the college’s vocabulary.
This clampdown left people questioning the closed-door actions of the administration and board, forcing the public and the media into antagonistic positions to uncover the truth. Increasingly desperate efforts to hide that truth led to the incumbents’ defeat at the ballot box and the resignation of more than a dozen administrators.
Hernandez, Nader and Peraza brought a passion for education that the former governing board sadly lacked. They have also been champions of transparency and openness. They meet often and keep the public, students and press informed.
This house-cleaning board majority will need to consistently remind nervous employees that the old way of doing business is over. There will be none of the reflexive administrative circling of the wagons or other defensive behavior. Record requests will be honored. Investigations will be made public. Questions will be answered forthrightly. Administrators will treat faculty, students and media as allies and stakeholders, not enemies to deflect and deceive.
People who act guilty in this time of search warrants and indictments will be presumed guilty and part of the problem rather than part of the solution. It is important for all college trustees and employees to remember that we are being closely watched, and that our behaviors and actions will have heightened meaning. Stay on the side of the angels.
Right now, the district attorney is in the middle of a huge investigation into past and present board members of the Sweetwater Union High School District and its former superintendent. Three are connected to our college. Arlie Ricasa, SWC’s director of student development and health services, is currently on administrative leave. Greg Sandoval, the former acting superintendent/president, and Henry Amigable, who oversaw Proposition R construction in 2009 and 2010, have been charged with multiple felonies.
Questions abound. “Who’s next?” Former V.P. Alioto and former facilities director John Wilson are likely candidates. Other contenders for headlines are Salcido, former SWC superintendent Chopra, and Dan Hom, president of Focuscom, a PR firm in league with Alioto, Wilson and Amigable.
San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis released the dogs on Sweetwater and she has a few more in the pen, warming up for Southwestern College.
When it came to the D.A.’s 2011 investigation, the new governing board had three choices: work with the D.A.’s office, work against it, or to simply let the investigation happen by taking as little action as possible. Hernandez, Nader, Peraza and former trustee Nick Aguilar opted smartly to work with them, opening SWC’s doors and books, and promising them the first results of an internal review of the college’s finances that has been underway for most of a year. This is the high road, and it sends a powerful message to the community that this college will no longer hide misdeeds and unethical activities.
It is up to the courts to determine guilt or innocence, but the evidence collected so far is shocking. Voters who tossed out two ineffective trustees at Southwestern in 2010 are getting out their brooms to sweep out Sweetwater corruption this November.
For our new leaders, this is the point of no return. It falls upon them to make certain that the promises of truth and openness are actually reflected by the actions and deeds of the administration. It also falls upon them to not let the fear of bad press and shocking headlines overshadow the promise made to be fully transparent.
Nelson Mandela knew that South Africa had to come clean before it could heal. Southwestern College is in the same place. Hernandez, Nader and Peraza understand that. Here’s hoping our new administrators get it, too.