Questions are being raised over a deal the Sweetwater Union High School District made with its employees to get them back to the classroom earlier than first agreed upon.
The district has come under financial scrutiny in the past; but this time it's not about money, it's a disclosure issue.
“It’s a huge deal for Sweetwater,” said Michael Fine, the executive director of FCMAT (Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team), a state agency whose website states that its mission is to “help California’s local educational agencies fulfill their financial and management responsibilities by providing fiscal advice, management assistance, training and other related business services."
The San Diego County Office of Education, which reviews districts’ finances, sent a letter to Sweetwater putting it on notice that the district did not disclose agreements with employees in a timely manner.
“That's a process that has been in place for years and years and years," Fine said. "There’s really no excuse for any school district not to follow the process.”
The situation began when Sweetwater decided to bring back more students for in-person learning, which would qualify the district for state money incentivizing districts to open sooner rather than later. To lure the teachers back, they would receive some of the state’s incentive money, in this case, a one-time increase of monthly pay, ranging from 2-7%.
“They have this grant from the state to do this very thing and get in-person instruction back, so it’s not an affordability issue, it’s a one-time thing,” Fine said. “But this is a district that should understand procedures very well and follow them.”
Community activist Nick Marinovich said he was frustrated.
“It's a culture that kind of says, Maybe this kind of thing is acceptable to do things not by the rules,” Marinovich said. “I don’t buy it. I’m tired of it after following the district for 10 years not doing things by the rules.… It’s the Sweetwater way.”
Giving the district the benefit of the doubt, Fine said the issue could stem from how the district interpreted the timeline for disclosure and said the district has made "huge strides, processwise -- financially huge strides, I think -- just from the perspective of leadership."
But when asked if the district should have known better, Fine said, “That would be my initial thought, especially a district that's been through a lot of turmoil and again focused on cleaning things up, and they have been, and … they’re making progress, and I don’t want this to distract from the fact they are making progress."