Sweetwater Union High School District awarded $8.2M in settlement

By Jessica Caimi | Feb 17, 2017

SAN DIEGO — The Sweetwater Union High School District in Chula Vista, California, is putting the past behind it after receiving $8.2 million as part of a pay-to-play legal settlement involving two construction companies.

Gilbane Building Company and SGI Construction Management, two Northern California-based construction companies, will pay Sweetwater for their alleged involvement in the scandal. In exchange, the school district will drop its pending lawsuits against them.

The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that 17 trustees, contractors and educators pleaded guilty to more than 200 misdemeanors and felonies in the South Bay school scandal, which involved school officials allegedly receiving gifts from construction companies that wanted to work with the district.

Gilbane and SGI were hired for a joint construction venture in 2007 under former the former high-school district superintendent, Jesus Gandara, according to a report by the Star Times. Gandara and Greg Sandoval, a former school-board member, served time in custody, the Union-Tribune reported.

Gilbane and SGI have argued that their gift-giving is protected under the First Amendment. The Star News reported on Feb. 4 that the case was pending in the California Supreme Court.

However, Sweetwater Union is ready to leave the lawsuits in the past. Manuel Rubio, director of grants and communications for Sweetwater under new Superintendent Dr. Karen Janney, told the Northern California Record that “the ultimate goal of the school board and current superintendent is moving on and going forward.”

Rubio says that the first step is making sure the community has full insight to the school district’s fiscal plans.

“As we’re looking to apply for another school bond measure, potentially in the next few years, we want to make sure the process is as transparent as possible,” he said, also stating that “‘transparency’ is a bit of a buzz word, but this school board takes it very seriously and wants to walk the talk.”

Rubio also said the board wants to make sure that the settlement money goes back into the school system to serve the most pressing needs of the students, teachers, and community. For example, he pointed out a plan to improve the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems throughout the school district. The air conditioning is a particularly pressing need.

“You can’t tell me global warming isn’t real,” Rubio said, “because it feels warmer every year… We want students to be able to learn, and do it in a comfortable and welcoming environment.”

Currently, 80 percent of the district's classrooms are air-conditioned, Rubio said, but the goal is to have 98-99 percent coverage by the end of the 2017-2018 school year.

Rubio also discussed “responsibility as far as tax-payer dollars are concerned.” He said that Sweetwater continues to communicate with each individual community in order to make a personalized assessment of its needs.

“We’ve continued to go back to all our communities and say, ‘What do you need,’ while recognizing that each school is probably very different,” Rubio said.

It’s all part of Sweetwater’s plan to leave the drama in the past.

“We want to make sure we’re doing the right things for our community and our students especially,” Rubio said.

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