Breaking: Sweetwater Schools using public funds to promote Ricasa during re-election?

Barry Jantz Barry Jantz

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In the midst of a re-election challenge, Sweetwater Union High School District (SUHSD) President Arlie Ricasa is receiving significant positive name recognition from a taxpayer-funded public relations effort, paid by Sweetwater schools.

Ironically, the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) confirmed yesterday it would investigate a complaint filed on September 20, 2010, against Ricasa for alleged improprieties associated with using funds raised for her current campaign to retire debt from a prior election.  Ricasa was a candidate for the 78th State Assembly District two years ago, losing to eventual general election winner Marty Block in the 2008 Democratic primary contest.

The Union-Tribune ran a story about the FPPC complaint today.  Attached is the full complaint.

Yet, what the FPPC complaint and UT story do not address may be even more significant, while equal cause for an investigation by the appropriate authorities.  In recent weeks, the Sweetwater School District has facilitated a full-fledged marketing campaign – at public expense – proclaiming its achievements, while hi-lighting the name of Board President Ricasa.

On September 29, 2010, Sweetwater Superintendent Jesus Gandara mailed a letter to district parents, celebrating increasing test scores.  The letter, addressed “Dear Sweetwater family member,” included enclosures of recent news clippings about the student academics, complete with a quote from Board President Arlie Ricasa.

How many parents were sent the packet of information?  SUHSD should answer that question, but there is nothing in the letter to suggest that it didn’t go to every family.  On its website, the district notes it has 42,000 students.  Potentially, that’s a lot of mail, also very likely exceeding the state prohibition on publicly-funded mass mailings that tout the name of an elected official.

The district also ran at least one newspaper ad, of the full-page variety, on page five of last Thursday’s South County edition of the Union-Tribune, also proclaiming its positives and again giving recognition to Ricasa as the board president.

The chronology of events seems a bit coincidental.   The complaint against Ricasa was filed with the FPPC on September 20.  Nine days later, September 29, several thousand letters were mailed to district residents, quoting Ricasa.  Sample ballots, then absentee ballots started getting mailed to voters from the County Registrar about that time, a month from the November 2 election.  Then, October 7, a full page ad appeared in the newspaper, again mentioning Ricasa.

Anyone check the price to run a full-page Union-Trib ad lately, or the costs associated with printing and mailing thousands of letters?  My guess is that the school district didn’t report the amounts as an in-kind contribution to Ricasa’s campaign.   After all, that would be illegal.

The timing of the school district PR campaign, polishing the name of Arlie Ricasa with public monies during her re-election, all conveniently timed with sample and absentee ballots being in the hands of voters, couldn’t be more suspicious.

Ricasa faces a challenge from Andrew Valencia.  The race seems to be a hodgepodge of unconventional alignments and philosophies, with the Sweetwater Education Association — the teachers union — endorsing against incumbent Democrat Ricasa, opting instead to support Republican Valencia.  The local Labor Council is apparently even staying out of the race as a result of the union’s non-support of Ricasa.  That’s all for another story, perhaps.

The immediate issue of interest is the mysterious timing of the school district’s marketing campaign.  It must be strange politics – or internal influences – that a school board superintendent would be so ethically tone deaf as to approve pro-Ricasa letters, ads, artwork and related expenditures during his board president’s re-election, and think no one would take note.  Especially given all the government “watch-dogging” taking place in the county and around the state in recent years.

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This article also appears at the FlashReport.

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