Patrick Esparza addresses the Harlandale ISD board at a public hearing held regarding State intervention. Credit: Stephanie Marquez / San Antonio Report

Members of the Harlandale Independent School District community took turns Thursday night unleashing pent up frustration against trustees and the Texas Education Agency in a public hearing focused on looming State intervention.

Thursday night’s meeting was the first time trustees designated a time for the community to speak with the board on the subject. Board President Ricardo Moreno described it as an opportunity for community members to “voice their commentary, whether it is positive or negative.”

Harlandale resident Helen Villareal said she was there for the students. “I think that’s why we are here, because it hasn’t been that. Yes, the teachers and principals are doing a good job, most of them, but it is not enough. There is a culture in the district of not involving the community enough, and that’s shown by one thing: the closed sessions.”

Other speakers also railed against a perceived lack of transparency in the district.

At several recent meetings, trustees discussed the State sanctions appeal with attorneys behind closed doors. The board then returned to open session to vote on vaguely-worded action items “as discussed in closed session.”

“I served on the City Zoning Commission representing District 4 for seven years and in over 150 meetings, we went into closed sessions twice,” former trustee candidate and Harlandale resident Orlando Salazar said, addressing the board. “Here it is an everyday thing. As soon as is possible, [you] run into closed session, hide from the people what is really being said, what is being discussed.”

Other community members questioned the cost of legal fees the board is paying in current district proceedings.

The district spent $111,194.36 in legal costs related to the TEA investigation and sanctions as of early July, according to information received through a public records request.

Following the meeting, Moreno described the money that has been spent on the legal fight as “appropriate,” saying he didn’t want to lie down and let the State impose its will.

Of the 15 speakers Thursday night, about a third approached the microphone to speak in support of the board or to question the motives of TEA.

“The board has made changes, we’ve all seen them,” Texas State Teachers Association organizer Susan Salinas said before listing a series of actions the board has taken including proposing termination for Superintendent Rey Madrigal and trustee David Abundis’ resignation. “If you don’t like what a board member is doing, you have a right to do something … vote the people you want in and don’t bring TEA that is going to harm our kids and our employees by lowering our accreditation.”

In late June, Commissioner of Education Mike Morath notified the district that TEA would replace the elected board of trustees with an appointed board of managers, lower the district’s accreditation rating, and install a conservator, who can override board votes.

Morath’s decision followed a more than yearlong investigation that found Harlandale trustees violated tenets of the Open Meetings Act, State law, and board policy. It also found Madrigal, who has since been proposed for termination, made payments and agreements without board approval.

The board voted to appeal Morath’s decision and will meet with TEA officials Aug. 7 to ask for a reversal. An application and recruitment process for people to serve on the board of managers is ongoing.

Applications are due Aug. 8, interviews are planned for Aug. 14 and 15, and TEA plans to begin training on Aug. 23 and 24. An appeal could halt this process, but TEA won’t announce its final decision until after the Aug. 7 meeting.

Harlandale ISD is one of three school districts with campuses on the City’s South Side for which TEA has announced board of managers and conservator sanctions. Southside and Edgewood ISDs are currently governed by appointed boards, although Edgewood is in the process of transitioning back to elected leadership. The State is investigating board overreach at South San Antonio ISD.

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.