Tuesday was the annual Board Appreciation Ceremony at San Antonio Independent School District‘s headquarters, a touching afternoon of student music, dance and visual arts presentations, a way of saying thanks to the seven unpaid board trustees who preside over the inner city’s largest school district.

The afternoon program preceded the evening board meeting, and the atmosphere was festive as a quick-witted Superintendent Sylvester Perez served as emcee, his last such ceremony as his planned retirement at the end of the 2014-15 school year approaches.

“I’ve been the superintendent of at least five school districts and I can say this is the best group of trustees I’ve worked with,” Perez declared at the outset of the program.

The talented Jefferson Jazz Ensemble opened with “My Cheri Amor,” the 1969 Motown soul classic by Stevie Wonder, and dance groups from Sam Houston, Highland, and Edison high schools performed several original jazz dance numbers as trustees, administration staff and others looked on with appreciation.

Jefferson Jazz Ensemble offers its take on a Stevie Wonder soul classic at the SAISD Board Appreciation Ceremony. Photo by Robert Rivard.
Jefferson Jazz Ensemble offers its take on a Stevie Wonder soul classic at the SAISD Board Appreciation Ceremony. Photo by Robert Rivard.

Students are seldom the center of attention at school board meetings. Tuesday proved to be the exception to the rule, and left me wondering why more meetings aren’t leavened with entertaining reminders that students should come first.

After the trustees were presented with original artworks by student artists from their individual districts, and trustee Olga Hernandez was presented with a dozen yellow roses, the board got down to business.

“On behalf of the whole board, we want to say how honored we are to be part of the SAISD family,” said Board Chair Ed Garza. “We have been laser focused on becoming one of the best school districts in the nation.”

Such lofty aspirations drew loud applause. Achieving it, or even demonstrating such an ambitious trajectory, will be the challenge.

Edison Golden Girls perform a jazz number at the SAISD Board Appreciation Ceremony. Photo by Robert Rivard.
Edison Golden Girls perform a jazz number at the SAISD Board Appreciation Ceremony. Photo by Robert Rivard.

That challenge includes what arguably will be the most important decision that Board Chair Garza and his fellow trustees will make: recruitment and hiring of a new superintendent.

The district has a poor record on this front, with a history of the board resisting and eventually dismissing strong superintendents with ambitious change agendas. Perez himself originally won the job as an interim superintendent after the last formal search was botched, ending with an unqualified finalist withdrawing before his selection had to be arbitrarily reversed.

Over the next few days, the Rivard Report will publish an in-depth look at the search for a new superintendent and how the current board dynamics have worked against the best interests of the district at times and prevented a national caliber superintendent from being hired and retained.

Perez, by all accounts, has been an unqualified success in his relatively short-term as the district’s top administrator, but he came out of retirement to accept the interim appointment, then agreed to stay for a full term after the board removed “interim” from his title. Now he has decided he is ready to leave.

SAISD Superintendent Dr. Sylvester Perez emcees the Board Appreciation Ceremony. Photo by Robert Rivard.
SAISD Superintendent Sylvester Perez emcees the Board Appreciation Ceremony. Photo by Robert Rivard.

Tuesday’s meeting focused on the timeline presented to the board by George McShan, the one-man search firm based in Harlingen who has partnered with Rúben Olivárez, a University of Texas education professor and former SAISD superintendent.  The selection of a search firm in December was, to say the least, a controversial process that seemed driven more by personalities than qualifications and finally ended with the McShan-Olivarez hiring by a 4-3 vote.

Unfortunately, such board division is bound to influence who applies for the job as applicants weigh the odds of mustering strong board support, considered essential to longevity and success in the job.

Trustees hope to identify a sole finalist for the job by April 13 and, presuming that individual is fully vetted and approved, announce a new superintendent hiring by the first week of May, allowing the new hire to overlap with Perez before he vacates the office.

The timeline is an ambitious one, and both trustees James Howard and Hernandez expressed concern that the board was moving too quickly and not leaving sufficient time for trustees or the public to fully participate in the process.

The board is conducting a series of public hearings at which members of the public are invited to share their thoughts on what qualities the next superintendent should embody. The exercise seems nothing more than a public relations effort. The board already agreed on a profile before its last failed superintendent search, and such meetings are thinly attended at best.

The meeting last week at Sam Houston High School drew 40 people, yet nearly half of those in attendance were district employees and another 10 were children. In other words, the meeting was a bust.

Howard twice expressed concern that with only one such meeting in his district, the Eastside’s “faith-based community” had not had the chance to weigh in with its views. Is it just me, or is it inappropriate to invite the faith-based community to play any role in a purely secular decision?

McShan’s efforts to reassure trustees devolved into a painful demonstration of poor public speaking and communications by the consultant, who appeared disorganized as he reviewed optional milestone dates, from the opening of the application filing period to the review and interview process, and on to the final selection.

Earlier in this article, I linked to McShan’s resume that I found on another firm’s website where McShan had done some consulting. I couldn’t find a website for McShan Consultants, which might have given readers a fuller understanding of his work. Trustees passed over far more experienced and proven search firms to hire McShan. As our stories in the next few days will show, he has a spotty track record and this will be his first big urban district search.

Trustees Steve Lecholop, Deborah Guerrero, and Patti Radle, who voted against McShan’s hiring, all grew impatient with the consultant’s inarticulate responses to their questions about the proposed timeline. McShan kept mumbling about possible site visits, as if trustees might visit districts in Texas and other states as if that would somehow shed light on a candidate’s qualifications.  It was not a confidence-building display.

In the end, Garza agreed the dates should be adjusted to give trustees more time to review applications and conduct candidate interviews over multiple days. The board unanimously voted to adopt the timeline as a “framework” subject to change as the process continues.

SAISD’s mission statement was rewritten by the board in 2012, and the new version sets very lofty goals that some see as inconsistent with the board’s track record: “To transform SAISD into a national model urban school district where every child graduates and is educated so that he or she is prepared to be a contributing member of the community.”

Ultimately, such transformation starts at the top. Finding a superintendent with both the experience and the vision to lead the district forward, and then giving that individual the support and authority to lead, will be the best measure of the board’s ability to pursue its stated path to excellence.

Interested candidates have until March 13 to apply.

*Featured/top image: Board Appreciation Day: Trustees James Howard, Patti Radle, Ed Garza (chair), Olga Hernandez, Steve Lecholop, Debra Guerrero, and Arthur V. Valdez. Photo by Robert Rivard 

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.