Thousands of parents across San Diego County are struggling with how to talk to student athletes who don’t know when they will get to play again.
But is one school district keeping its campuses closed for financial reasons?
Some parents are raising questions.
Still under a criminal investigation for mismanaging $30 million, Sweetwater Union High School District ranks among the largest school districts in the state with more than 40,000 enrolled students.
The district has also been among the most restrictive in the county about reopening its campuses. And NBC 7 Investigates found being closed has saved the district some big money.
The swimming pool at Mar Vista High looked different last year. Now it’s locked up. Like the overgrown football fields at Bonita Vista.
It’s November, but take a look around and you’ll see no students, no athletes.
“Not having sports is taking a toll on a lot of people,” said Caleb Hutchins, a junior at Bonita Vista High School. “Mentally, physically. Grades have gone down. People are becoming depressed. It’s just a lot that has happened to us. And the district just seems to not care.”
Like a lot of school districts around the county, Sweetwater students are staying home.
But unlike other districts, Sweetwater student athletes haven’t been allowed to use school grounds to practice until last week. And Sweetwater still does not allow outside clubs or the public to use their athletic facilities
“It’s really frustrating,” says Mar Vista parent Dr. Kimberly Dickson. “It’s disheartening. The board is there to make the best decision for our students. But it makes you wonder if maybe it was a financial decision instead.”
“Financial” because these parents say the Sweetwater school district is looking to fill a massive budget shortfall.
“I feel like they’re using the pandemic to make up for this deficit that they created,” said Bonita Vista parent Katie Davidson-Brovick.
NBC 7 Investigates requested public records to see just how much money the district has saved by being closed.
A memo from the San Diego County Office of Education to the Sweetwater acting superintendent shows the district saved $18.3 million last year mostly because of COVID-19 emergency closures from mid-March to the end of last school year.
Again, that’s nearly $18.3 million in just over two-and-a-half months just from savings on building and grounds maintenance, utilities and fuel costs.
“I consider myself to be a pretty involved parent and I had no idea they saved that much money in just 12 weeks,” said Mar Vista parent Elizabeth McKay.
Parents critical of the district say those savings cast a shadow over the district’s motivations for staying closed while surrounding districts reopen.
“The lack of communication and the lack of transparency doesn’t lead to anything but suspicion,” Kay said.
A Sweetwater Union spokesman declined multiple requests for an on-camera interview with a district official to answer questions about the savings.
Instead, the spokesman sent NBC 7 Investigates the following statement:
"The Sweetwater Union High School District, like all other school districts in South County, remains closed due to the continued disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on our communities. With average rates significantly higher than the San Diego County average, our focus remains on the safety of students, staff, and the entire community.
Regarding the district’s finances, while there have been some savings, there have also been several unexpected expenses during the pandemic that continue to go towards supporting students – such as costs for additional devices, connectivity tools, personal protective equipment, and supports for students. Financial information is regularly shared with the Board of Trustees as soon as it becomes available and that information is posted publicly for review."
While schools may have seen higher costs, Sweetwater Union received millions of dollars in CARES Act funding for pandemic-related expenses.
And when NBC 7 Investigates asked for the amount of those “unexpected expenses” the district spokesman could not provide a specific answer.
“I’m so glad and grateful you’re here,” said Mar Vista parent Dr. Matt Dickson. “There is a credibility issue with this board and with this school district."
“We need to hold them accountable,” added Dickson’s wife, Dr. Kimberly Dickson. “I really feel like nobody is holding them accountable for this money, and for their motivations.”
The head of the Sweetwater teachers’ union, Julie Walker, said the savings were eye-opening.
“Well, it was really a surprise,” Walker said. “That that $18 million was there.”
Still, Walker said many teachers just don’t feel safe going back to the classroom.
“I’d rather open safely,” Walker said. “Smartly, so we can continue to stay open.”
Walker said if the district is saving money, she hopes it goes to restoring some programs it recently cut.
“I question, personally, Sweetwater’s ability to do some math," Dr. Matt Dickson said.
Parents say they don’t put much stock in the district to spend the savings transparently.
“Clearly, the Sweetwater district has got some problems calculating money,” said Dr. Matt Dickson. “They lost $30 million before. Now they’re saving and getting more. Where is that money going?”
“It brings up a lot of questions,” Hutchins said. “And it’s really disappointing honestly.”
Questions, disappointment and now frustration from student athletes.
“I see a lot of my friends are not motivated to go to school,” Mar Vista sophomore Bradford Dickson said. “Depressed, getting into drugs. Getting into alcohol. Just not doing positive things to support their future lifestyle. And it’s not fair the district is saving money and that’s happening to my friends.”
Students who just want to get back in the water now wondering what lies below the surface of the district’s decisions.
Remember that $18.3 million is just from mid-March to the end of last school year. We still don’t know how much the district has saved so far this school year, or how they plan to use these savings.
Sweetwater Union High Schools will not reopen for in-person learning until 2021.
After a state audit over the summer found district officials may have criminally mismanaged the 2018 budget, the school board fired its superintendent in September. The district is now under investigation by the District Attorney.