This past week Jesus Gandara, superintendent of the Sweetwater Union High School District welcomed the teachers and staff of the district back to school with a multi-media presentation that had been described as inspiring and entertaining. This is an annual event that is used to present the goals, the accomplishments, and the challenges facing the school district.
Inspiring teachers for the new academic year is a common practice. If Superintendent Gandara can deliver his message in a comfortable and entertaining fashion, he should be applauded for his innovation and theatrical sensibilities.
But in these times of economic hardship, when school budgets are being squeezed, when school sites have to deal with fewer dollars, when teachers are spending more out of their own pockets to support their classroom activities, why would Superintendent Gandara spend approximately $12,900 to hold this event at a non-school site? This expenditure is not perceived as wise by the community.
Sweetwater Unified is the largest secondary district in the country. It boasts several new campuses that house theater complexes with seating capacities in the 450 seat range. These venues are equip-ped for multi-media presentations. These venues are too small to host whole staff at once. If 450 seat auditoriums are too small what about the new $12 million dollar gymnasiums that were designed and justified with community events in mind, why weren’t those venues utilized in an effort to conserve expenses?
An email had been sent out stating that a cost savings of approximately $500 was realized by holding the event at the church facility in Eastlake. We find this hard to imagine in that $3,000 was spent to rent the facility for 4 hours. The rationale used to manufacture this savings is flimsy at best. For example, it was proposed that it would have been expensive for janitorial personnel to set up a campus site. Janitors are full time, year round staff. It is not an extra expense to shift them from one campus to another. And, as entertaining as the presentation may have been, the theatrics could have been toned down to accommodate a gymnasium setting.
Then there is the question of a Christian facility hosting the event, of public monies being used to support this organization. For many people, this is not an issue, but there are a significant number of people for whom this does present a problem. It is a question of separation of church and state.
Compounding this problem is the appearance of a conflict of interest with School Board member Jim Cartmill. It has been reported that Jim Cartmill is an elder at the Eastlake Community Church where the event was held. Further, it must be noted that the site choice and the monies spent did not come before the school board in a public forum. In fact, some of the school board members did not become aware of the venue until just a few days before the event.
In these extremely tough economic times, it would have been prudent for the Superintendent to lead by example and demonstrate the type of fiscal responsibility that reflects the present day realities. This might have been a better message, a message that would have resonated with the community.
We can appreciate the desire to provide a comfortable setting, with multi-media displays and air conditioning, but the perception of this extravaganza just feels wrong. The Superintendent should have taken in the realities of the residents in the South Bay, many of whom are struggling day to day, many of whom are losing their homes, and others are out of work. Perception goes a long way and the perception by the taxpayers who are paying on the $644 million dollar bond is not a good one when they are having trouble affording their mortgage payment. It would have felt better knowing that the Superintendent is looking for ways to save money.
Leadership by example goes a long way.