With shifting enrollments across Bexar County school districts and ongoing state interventions, questions have arisen about whether troubled districts could be consolidated with a healthier district in the future.
The short answer? Yes, district consolidation is possible, but it’s not likely and wouldn’t happen anytime soon.
Consolidation of schools by the Texas Education Agency through annexation is rare, and only happens in extreme circumstances, such as when a district loses accreditation or becomes financially insolvent. The Texas Education Code allows the commissioner of education to annex a troubled school district if it has been rated as “academically unacceptable” for a period of two years.
For example, the North Forest Independent School District, which was experiencing academic and financial problems, was shuttered in 2013 following years of state intervention and was folded into the Houston Independent School District.
Only eight annexations have occurred in the last 10 years and 76 since 1983, many voluntary.
Voluntary consolidations, which have been discussed by elected officials in Bexar County over the years, are more common, with smaller districts being absorbed into larger neighboring districts to save money and provide more equitable education.
The process can be initiated by voters or by the board of trustees.
The South San Antonio Independent School District has been in and out of state oversight over the last decade, with two investigations by the TEA currently underway. A monitor, who was appointed by the agency after a previous investigation, currently reports the district’s actions to the commissioner.
Despite facing a $12 million deficit and declining enrollment, the district hasn’t fallen below a C rating and scored an A on the most recent state financial rating.
A dwindling general fund, like a savings account for the district, could impact the district’s overall rating in the coming years, but not enough in itself to trigger consolidation.
The district took a first step toward cutting spending Wednesday by voting to close three schools with poor performance and low enrollment.
But what about voluntary consolidation in Bexar County?
Lawmakers and other elected officials have broached the subject with caution over the years in commentary and through legislation. Senate Bill 2 in the 83rd legislative session in 2013 directed TEA to explore the impact of consolidation on school performance, specifically looking at counties that include at least seven school districts and 10 open-enrollment charter schools.
In 2014, the TEA studied county-wide consolidation, finding that such a plan would cost more than it would save.
The study looked at the impacts of county-wide mega districts, which in the case of Bexar County would have had an enrollment of 321,072.
According to the study, cost savings would only apply for consolidations involving small districts, but as the size of the consolidated district increases past 3,200 students, costs are expected to rise, not fall.
The study also noted that competitive pressure leads to greater school district efficiency in Texas.
Texas A&M University Professor Lori Taylor co-authored the study, which found that cost savings are most effective at the school level.
Smaller districts could feasibly see a benefit, Taylor told the San Antonio Report, which in Bexar County would include districts like Alamo Heights, which has under 5,000 students; Southside ISD, which has just over 5,000 students; and Somerset ISD, which has just under 4,000 students.
“The main factors that contribute to cost savings are economies of scale at the district and school levels,” she said.
Having larger schools allows for class sizes that are closer to the ideal sweet spot, where they are not too big for teachers to give individual attention and not too small to be costly to operate, Taylor said.
However, consolidation is a politically fraught decision, she said, and districts should have confidence that no other solutions will work before considering it.
Charters, vouchers and enrollment losses
Ed Garza, a San Antonio ISD trustee and former San Antonio mayor, said the new educational landscape necessitates a conversation about an updated educational system in the county.
In a recent interview with the Report, Garza said the current conversation about consolidations should focus on right-sizing districts after enrollment losses at many districts, including San Antonio ISD.
Southside ISD is rapidly growing, adding 8% enrollment since last year with projected growth continuing, according to recent board documents.
Over the years, a growing number of charter schools have also cropped up across the county, drawing tens of thousands of students from traditional school districts. Voucher-like policies being discussed in the Texas Legislature would allow even more students to choose schools outside of traditional districts.
“The priority right now is just right-sizing or downsizing for many of the school districts,” he said. We have too much space. It’s an overhead cost, and it’s affecting the bottom line.”
After that, Garza said consolidations could increase equity between wealthy districts like Alamo Heights ISD and historically less wealthy districts like Edgewood ISD.
“If it’s an issue of using our public tax dollars efficiently, with a goal of providing an equitable education to all students, then why not an Alamo Heights and an Edgewood and San Antonio sitting down and talking about how they could move towards a common governance structure that could benefit everybody?,” he said.
Other possibilities could include consolidating with public charter districts, like IDEA or KIPP, which rival the size of San Antonio ISD, he said. Such a move would be unprecedented.
Despite conversations, op-eds and news articles, no concrete steps have been taken recently to initiate a consolidation of districts.
Garza suggested that a neutral facilitator would be necessary to initiate that conversation.
“I think there needs to be a neutral facilitator in the conversation like an elected official, whether at the state level or the county level or city level,” he said. “Just because I think school districts in their nature are suspicious of one school district reaching out to the other. It’s always, ‘What do you want now?’ It’s very territorial.”
Garza emphasized the importance of finding a sustainable plan for education in San Antonio and Bexar County.
“If anyone thinks that the old system is going to stay and last forever, you know, they’ve been living on Mars, because there’s one thing that’s certain is that the change is happening,” he said. “And if you don’t change with the market being the parents and the demand of the families, then you’re going to become obsolete and irrelevant.”
This article has been updated to correct a photo caption that misstated South San Antonio Independent School District’s budget deficit.