Harlandale and South San Antonio independent school districts are both under state oversight related to school board governance. While Harlandale’s state-appointed conservator has the power to direct action by district personnel, South San’s state-appointed monitor does not.

The difference between these levels of oversight by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) can cause confusion.

A Harlandale community member said during a board workshop that a plan by the superintendent to close schools with low enrollment was orchestrated by the district’s conservator.

That conservator, Judy Castleberry, confirmed to the San Antonio Report on Thursday that she had no role in the plans recently presented to cut spending by closing four elementary schools due to a $12 million deficit. 

“I have not played a role in that,” she said. “The board has hired [Superintendent Gerard] Soto to guide that district, and bring recommendations to the board that he thinks are appropriate in the long term interests of the students and the staff in the district as a whole.”

Castleberry was appointed in 2020 after an investigation into the district found that Harlandale’s board of trustees failed to monitor district finances, acted individually on behalf of the board and violated the Texas Open Meetings Act through group text messages among board members.

The role of conservators like Castleberry, appointed by the Texas Education Commissioner, is to oversee the operations of the district. They have the power to direct the action of a campus principal, superintendent, or board of trustees according to the Texas Education Agency’s website.

The agency also appoints monitors, like Abelardo “Abe” Saavedra, who is keeping tabs on the progress of South San Antonio ISD following a previous TEA investigation. That district, which is also grappling with a $12 million deficit and possible school closures, is currently being investigated further by the TEA.

Unlike a conservator, a monitor can’t direct the board or other staff to take actions. Instead they attend all board meetings or committee meetings with board members present and report actions, lack of actions and behavior to the agency, according to Saavedra.

Other oversight actions the state can take include installing a board of managers, which replaces the elected board of trustees in extreme cases following investigations. Houston ISD, the state’s largest district is reportedly bracing for a potential takeover by the agency in the coming days.

Conservator roles are tailored to each district’s needs, which in the case of Harlandale focuses primarily on finance, general management and governance, Castleberry said. 

In the event a conservator does direct a principal, board member or the superintendent to take an action, the directive would be shared in a board meeting and part of the public record.  

Since her appointment in 2020, Castleberry has officially intervened on several matters in the district pertaining to governance matters and board rules, such as directing changes to the district’s legal counsel. 

Other recommendations have been more informal, she said.

Soto, the superintendent of the district, has said in recent public meetings that action is necessary to avoid more extreme deficits or staff reductions in the near future. District staff and the superintendent have proposed a detailed set of plans that would shuffle students at low enrollment schools into other schools and shift existing departments into the empty schools. 

Castleberry, who was previously a conservator for South San and Edgewood ISDs, said the district is on the right track.

“I think the district has worked very diligently to bring forward the information that’s relevant to this current situation,” she said. “The news is not news that people want to hear, but that community is not the same community it was even five years ago, so something has to be done to address that.”

Some parents at recent meetings spoke out about the need to move forward to avoid greater state intervention, while others have pushed back on the plan, citing the importance of neighborhood schools. The schools targeted by the plan are mostly around 50% enrolled, resulting in empty classrooms.  

A demographer study presented at recent meetings showed a continued decline in enrollment in the coming years.

If the district is able to meet a certain “exit criteria,” including coming up with a plan to achieve a balanced budget for the 2024-25 school year, Castleberry is set to depart her conservator role in December. 

“The district knows exactly what it will take for me to be exited,” she said. “And of course, they’re eager for that to happen. I don’t blame them. But that is always subject to reevaluation, if there are other matters that come up, the [TEA] commissioner can always reevaluate that.”