When voters see San Antonio ISD’s $450 million bond and $0.13 tax increase on the ballot this November, they may hesitate before voting yes to what appears to be a very expensive ask. According to State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-123), it’s the price of social justice, or at least a step forward in that direction.
On September 21, education nonprofit Leadership SAISD (LSAISD) hosted the first installment of its anticipated conversation series “Ed Chats,” which aim to tackle issues impacting San Antonio ISD. Around 100 people gathered at the Plaza de Armas building to hear Bernal and SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez engage in a frank discussion on the need for the 2016 bond and the Tax Ratification Election (TRE).
“There’s no free lunch, everybody,” said Martinez, “You gotta pay for education one way or the other.”
Those expecting Martinez’s usual measured demeanor would have been surprised. Now beginning his second year as superintendent, Martinez spoke with increased intensity about the wealth disparities in San Antonio, and the living and learning conditions within the district.
“He’s becoming increasingly upset,” Bernal said, “and I like that.”
Bernal and Martinez recounted their experiences as children from low-income homes and school systems as they entered the university setting with students who had taken twice as many dual credit, AP, and advanced courses. The experience inspired Bernal to make educational equity a career priority, beginning with parity in opportunity.
“I felt like there was an obligation,” Bernal said. “There’s nothing regarding a meritocracy that can explain those distinctions.”
For Martinez, the school system is tasked with equipping students to step into an unjust world. The average household income for SAISD families is $30,000 per year, according to district calculations. At J.T. Brackenridge Elementary School it is $20,000. This is less than half of the annual household income statewide. He sees academic excellence and training as armor as they battle the challenges ahead.
“Our society is not kind to people in poverty,” Martinez said. “I want that armor to be strong.”
Martinez came into SAISD with aggressive goals to improve performance across the district, in spite of having the two poorest zip codes in the county, and the second highest poverty rate in the state. He believes in the power of high expectations.
“For so many years we’ve allowed ourselves to have this pobrecito mentality,” Martinez stated. “We’ve got to challenge that.”
Having grown up in poverty in Chicago, Martinez anticipated a familiar struggle.
“I thought it was manageable,” Martinez said. “I thought ‘I got it.’”
Instead, what he found was all too familiar, but in the wrong way. It reminded him of the Chicago he left decades ago, not the poverty he encountered schools in the 21st century. Rather than the pioneering spirit of San Antonio, the neighborhoods and schools reflected a kind of social neglect that began to eat at Martinez. The injustice was more stark when he saw facilities across the Northside.
“If you travel to the Northside and you see their schools, and you’ve seen our schools in SAISD, you know that there is no equality,” SAISD Board President Patti Radle said in her introduction.
Martinez didn’t lower the bar or lessen his ambitions, but he did see the desperate need to provide resources that would bridge the opportunity gap between these students and the peers they would be competing against. He realized that it could not simply be done by telling teachers to get more creative.
“Are we really being fair to our staff… if they don’t have the support and the resources?” Martinez asked.
He said he hoped that he would get lucky when the Texas Supreme Court was due to rule on the state’s outdated school finance system. While the court did express its displeasure with the system, it did not rule it unconstitutional and removed pressure from the 85th Legislature to update a funding formula that has been stagnant since 1984. It wasn’t sufficient then, and it is not sufficient now, according to Martinez.
When the State decided against using its $6 billion surplus to fund education, Martinez and the board saw that the State was not coming to their aid.
“Who does that?” Martinez said, expressing incredulity.
The 2016 bond and the TRE are the district’s efforts to remedy these inequities.
“The State has abandoned responsibility to helping with that equality,” Radle said in her introduction. “We are not going to abandon our children.”
The bond is aimed at bringing district facilities up to a standard that can service competitive education.
“I’m not sure they quite understand the dire necessity of the situation,” Bernal said. “It’s not just modernizing the building, taking something old, and polishing it.”
Decrepit facilities are literally hindering education in some cases. Bernal and Martinez described teachers shouting over HVAC units and science labs without running water. The students who face the most hurdles coming out of low-income communities must add their learning environment to the list of disadvantages compared to their more affluent peers.
(Read More: SAISD’s Proposed Bond: When HVAC Equals Education)
Outdated facilities are a drain on energy and resources, one attendee pointed out. The updates will help save energy and free up maintenance personnel to do more proactive work. Martinez pointed out that two district employees had to fabricate custom replacement parts for an HVAC system that outlived its manufacturer. The maintenance staff has been tasked with the near impossible, but has done remarkably well.
“(The facilities) are clean folks, they are well taken care of,” Martinez explained.
Voters should expect the same accountability for the improved facilities. Each campus will be held to using its facilities as a tool to improve student outcomes.
“Our plan is to take each of our schools and make them innovative,” Martinez said.
With facilities that can accommodate innovation, the TRE will allow the district to invest in technology and programming to fill the buildings. Martinez wants to see more campuses like the Advanced Learning Academy, where students are not subject to a bell schedule or a single learning track, but free to delve deep and accelerate at their own pace.
“We have empowered teachers to create custom curriculums,” Martinez said.
The district has already seen demand that has outpaced availability for the schools in some grades.
The TRE will add approximately $32 million in new revenue to the district. Because of the way the Texas school finance formula works, the additional money will be directly applied to the district, and will not have to flow through the State in the same way that most of the tax revenue currently does. (The Rivard Report will further explain the school finance formula in future articles.)
“This is the first time that it’s like taking that money and walking it over to your neighborhood school,” Bernal said.
The lawmaker strongly encouraged those gathered to vote for the measures in November.
“When in your life have you had the chance to vote on a social justice issue?” Bernal asked.
If the vote does not pass, Martinez said, the battle is not over. The district remains committed to improving conditions.
“Even if we don’t succeed in November, we’ve got to have the conversation,” Martinez said.
Top image: SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez participates in ‘Ed Chat’ with State Rep. Diego Bernal (D123). Photo by Scott Ball.