When the San Ysidro school board hired Mary Willis as its interim superintendent in November, she became the seventh person to lead the troubled district since 2013. She was also the fourth to have ties to school districts in the East Los Angeles area.
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The road from East L.A. to San Ysidro began with Edward Velasquez, a former Montebello Unified School District superintendent with a reputation for helping districts in financial or administrative turmoil. In early 2015, he was recruited as San Ysidro’s interim superintendent when the district was facing bankruptcy and a state takeover. He held the job for five months.
Willis was his assistant superintendent for human resources when he headed the Montebello school district from 2004 to 2010. She followed Velasquez to the Lynwood Unified School District when he became the superintendent there in 2010.
Velasquez now works for a national recruiting company that places superintendents and other school administrators. Willis is retired and works as a consultant, sometimes taking interim superintendent posts. Velasquez told her about the job in San Ysidro, after he declined a request from the school board’s president to consider filling in as superintendent.
The post became vacant after months of turmoil that began with the resignation of Superintendent Julio Fonseca in September. His top deputy, Jose Arturo Sanchez-Macias, briefly took over as the interim superintendent before resigning in November. A state investigation is looking into payments the district made to the two men.
Before they joined the San Ysidro district, Fonseca and Sanchez-Macias worked at Bassett Unified, a school district in East Los Angeles just a few miles from Montebello and Lynwood.
Velasquez said he met Fonseca in 2015 when the Bassett Unified administrator was recruited to be San Ysidro’s permanent superintendent, succeeding Velasquez. Sanchez-Macias told inewsource he didn’t know Velasquez until he was hired by the San Ysidro district in 2015.
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So should parents, teachers and taxpayers in the San Ysidro School District be concerned about the East L.A. connections to their district that serves 4,800 elementary and middle school students? Velasquez doesn’t think so.
“Anytime you look at districts, and you look at the superintendent’s office, they develop relationships,” he said. “What’s unique about me, is mine (are not) based on favors. I’m not asking anybody for anything. What I’m asking people to do is do their job and do it well and at a decent cost.”
When he moved to the Lynwood district and hired Willis, Velasquez said he heard talk he was just hiring his friends, but it was the quality of their work he wanted.
“If any of these people I bring in are causing disruptions and stuff, I’ll be the first one to leave with them,” he said.
Even when Velasquez was the interim superintendent in San Ysidro, he brought Willis on as a consultant.
Benefits and risks of education network
Dede Alpert, who focused on public education during her 14 years in the California Legislature and is a former Solana Beach school board member, said it’s hard to know if the personal relationships and close networks help or hurt San Ysidro.
“If you want to think the best, you think, well, anybody would like a team,” Alpert said.
She said those relationships can help recruit administrators, particularly when a school district has been rocked by scandals and turmoil that might scare away top prospects.
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San Ysidro, profiled
- 4,815 students
- 7 schools, K-8th grade
- 81 percent of students receive free or reduced lunch
- 32 percent of students are homeless (as of 2015)
- $49.7 million current district budget
“(Maybe) you already know people from your past job that did a good job as a business manager or was really strong in curriculum,” Alpert said. “So you said, ‘Hey, I’m going to go ahead and do this. … Would you come down here, too?”
The risk, she said, is that administrators might be loyal to their longtime colleagues, rather than the school board, which governs the district. They might also see an opportunity in a district with weakened oversight.
“Is it a group of people taking advantage, again, that they know everything is weak?” Alpert said. “I want to hope (for) the best and hope that the reason that they come is because … teamwork would make it so that they could make a difference.”
She worries for the San Ysidro district, which has a history of financial and administrative problems, including the 2013 resignation of former Superintendent Manuel Paul in a pay-to-play scandal for which he served two months in federal jail. In 2013, the district also faced bankruptcy, which took two years to stave off.
Such troubles, Alpert said, could affect the quality of education being delivered in the district, which serves some of the poorest students in San Diego County.
“The most important issue (most parents) have is that their children have a good education,” she said.
Connections beyond San Ysidro
Velasquez and Willis’ East L.A. connections also extend into the San Diego County Office of Education, which has taken an especially active role in San Ysidro’s administration in recent weeks.
In 2016, Velasquez was hired as interim superintendent of schools at the county Office of Education, replacing Randolph Ward after he was placed on leave amid an investigation into possible impropriety involving his pay. Ward resigned two months later.
Velasquez served in that role for eight months. While there, he hired Willis as an interim associate superintendent and later as a consultant.
This past June, Paul Gothold was hired as the county schools superintendent. Gothold previously worked for Velasquez in the Montebello and Lynwood school districts. When Velasquez retired as Lynwood’s superintendent in 2013, Gothold replaced him.
Willis acknowledged that she, Velasquez and Gothold are part of a network of freelance administrators in California.
“There’s a cadre of people who do it, who go in and serve as interim or serve as mentors, and occasionally we bump back into each other,” Willis said.
In November, Willis and Gothold crossed paths in a different way. At the San Ysidro School Board meeting where she was officially hired, word came that Gothold had asked the state to conduct an “extraordinary audit” of payments the district made to Fonseca and Sanchez-Macias. That investigation is underway.
Willis said her history with Gothold will help the San Ysidro navigate through the audit process.
“I trust him completely,” she said. “It’s easy to work with people when you’ve built up a level of trust.”
The audit could be completed in January, a state official said. Also in January, Willis said, the school board is expected to decide on how to search for her replacement as superintendent.
Willis said that despite San Ysidro’s troubles she expects a good pool of superintendent candidates.
“It’s a wonderful district, and it would be kind of a plum job to come to,” Willis said. “A lot of the upheaval maybe is a little more scary and intimidating than it should be.”
Fonseca, the district’s last superintendent who wasn’t an interim, was paid $250,469 a year.
Disclosure: Former state Sen. Dede Alpert is an inewsource donor.