Mary Willis, seen here speaking to the San Ysidro school board during a special meeting Monday night, was appointed as the district's fill-in superintendent. (Leonardo Castañeda/inewsource)
Mary Willis, seen here speaking to the San Ysidro school board during a special meeting Monday night, was appointed as the district's fill-in superintendent. (Leonardo Castañeda/inewsource)

After its interim superintendent resigned Friday following allegations of financial mismanagement, the San Ysidro school board voted 4-1 Monday to name a Los Angeles-area educator to take over temporarily as the district’s top administrator.

It was the board’s second special meeting in four days. On Friday, following a more than five-hour closed session, the board announced it had accepted the resignation of Jose Arturo Sanchez-Macias, who had served in the interim superintendent role after his boss, Julio Fonseca, resigned on Sept. 1.

Mary Willis, who has some 40 years of experience in education, steps in to the interim superintendent job at a district in turmoil over allegations Fonseca and Sanchez-Macias misused district money to sweeten their own compensation packages. Some board members want the District Attorney’s Office to investigate and have called for a forensic audit of the school district’s finances. Two trustees also are facing a recall effort by some San Ysidro residents.

Willis, a school consultant, previously worked as an assistant superintendent of human resources at the Montebello Unified School District and as the interim superintendent at the El Monte Union School District in 2015. The board cited the need for an experienced leader for unnamed challenges in the coming months.

School board President Rosaleah Pallasigue was the lone vote against hiring Willis. Her contract is expected to be discussed when the board holds its regular meeting Thursday.

Willis told inewsource she has past experience with districts undergoing investigations.

“I take it one step at a time,” she said. “What are the facts?” Willis said her goal for San Ysidro is “to help establish trust and to have people working cohesively together.”

The board considered two other candidates: Armando Farias, a San Diego Unified School District principal and a Chula Vista Elementary School Board member, and Arthur Revueltas, a retired deputy superintendent at the Montebello Unified School District.

The San Ysidro district’s latest woes began in September with the abrupt resignation of Fonseca at a special board meeting. He resigned following allegations he had fired an employee who had accused the superintendent of having a relationship with a woman Fonseca recommended the board hire.

Fonseca left with a $376,000 separation package. An inewsource investigation last month found that package, combined with his salary and other financial benefits, added up to him making at least $1 million for the 26 months he worked in San Ysidro, one of the poorest district’s in the county. That averaged out to make him the highest paid superintendent in San Diego County and the second highest paid in the state.

Those revelations kicked off a flurry of activity in the district, including a call last Wednesday by trustee Rodolfo Linares for Sanchez-Macias’ resignation. Linares accused Sanchez-Macias and Fonseca of misleading the board about their life insurance benefits and of illegally cashing out their vacation days.

Linares asked them to return the money and said a forensic audit should be done of the district’s finances.

Two days later, Sanchez-Macias resigned. Linares told inewsource that Sanchez-Macias received no separation payout, unlike Fonseca.

The board also voted Friday to ask the District Attorney’s Office to investigate financial issues surrounding Sanchez-Macias and Fonseca. The district attorney should investigate anyone “who may have played a role in the abuses perpetrated by our former superintendents,” trustee Antonio Martinez said in a statement.

A spokeswoman for the district attorney declined Monday to comment on the request.

Several board members spoke during Monday’s meeting about Sanchez-Macias’ resignation, alluding to information the board said it has but  is not yet public.

“Without going into detail, this was a hard decision to make,” trustee Marcos Diaz said. “Our decision was made with the facts as we have them.”

Trustee Irene Lopez added, “There’s things that we cannot discuss by law.”

Pallasigue said Sanchez-Macias’ time in the district as interim superintendent was “very treasured.” He started with the district in September 2015 and served as the top administrator for two months.

San Ysidro serves about 4,800 students in south San Diego. Just a few years ago, the elementary and middle school district narrowly avoided bankruptcy and a state takeover by stabilizing its finances.

Its money troubles resurfaced a year after Fonseca was hired when the district had a nearly $1 million budget shortfall. It is projecting a roughly $925,000 shortfall for fiscal 2018.

Willis is San Ysidro’s fifth interim superintendent since Manuel Paul resigned as superintendent in 2013 during a pay-to-play scandal. He pleaded guilty in 2015 and was sentenced to two months in federal jail. He also was ordered to pay a $5,000 fine and do community service.

Paul admitted as part of a plea deal that he had threatened to withhold awarding contracts to a business unless he received political contributions for three school board candidates. He eventually accepted $2,500 in cash from the contractor and gave some of the money to the candidates.

Leonardo Castañeda was a reporter and economic analyst for inewsource. To contact him with tips, suggestions or corrections, please email leocastaneda [at] inewsource [dot] org.