The Alamo Colleges George E. Killen Community Education & Service Center is located at 201 W. Sheridan St.
Alamo Colleges will be eliminating debt for some students as part of the "Fresh Start" program. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Early voting begins Monday for an election that typically receives sparse voter turnout. On the Bexar County ballot are two education issues: a bond proposal from Northside Independent School District and four contested Alamo Colleges trustee positions. Election day is May 5.

Northside ISD seeks approval for its largest bond in district history, ringing in at a total of nearly $849 million.

At the end of January, NISD trustees and Superintendent Brian Woods extolled on the need for more money to keep up with growing student enrollment in the northwest part of the district. Bond money would fund the district’s construction of four new campuses: two elementary schools, a middle school, and a high school.

Northside is notable for its continuous enrollment growth at a time when surrounding districts are seeing a loss of students. In the past 16 years, more than 40,000 new students have enrolled in NISD.

Woods approximates two-thirds of bond funds will go to renovating and refurbishing existing campuses and facilities, more than half of which are more than two decades old.

Some of these renovations include updating fire sprinkler systems, providing shade structures over elementary school playgrounds, adding libraries and science labs, and installing PA intercom systems.

“When you account for the size of the district and try to factor reasonable inflationary estimates into what you are pricing out, and we want to try to go at least four years between all bond proposals…when all those get factored into the calculus, it generates [a large number],” Woods told the Rivard Report.

Northside Independent School District Superintendent Brian Woods stands for a portrait inside Northside Independent School District. Administration Building.
Northside Independent School District Superintendent Brian Woods Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

According to the district, the average homeowner, with a home valued at $218,540, would see an increase of $2.18 in his or her monthly tax bill in 2019, $6.61 in 2020, $9.63 in 2021, and $14.09 in 2022. This increase would peak with an added $22.10 per month in 2025, assuming between 2.5 and 3.5 percent growth in property value per year.

The last time NISD sought approval for a bond was 2014. Three campuses funded by the 2014 bond have yet to be completed. Woods said the district operates on a four-year bond cycle to keep up with growth and aging buildings.

“A larger portion of any bond campaign going forward will focus on those older schools,” he said. “Zip code or age of campus is not the only thing that determines quality of campus.”

Alamo Colleges District

Voters living on San Antonio’s north and west sides will also weigh in on four contested races for trustees in the Alamo Colleges District. Districts 5, 6, 7, and 9 are up for election, with four incumbents drawing challengers in each race.

District 5
Roberto Zarate District 5
District 5 trustee Roberto Zarate Credit: Courtesy / Alamo Colleges

In District 5, incumbent Roberto Zárate has two opponents – James Hernandez and Ramiro Nava. Zárate was first appointed to the board in 2003, and then won his seat in an election in May 2004. He is a retired educator who has worked on several higher education initiatives including the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s Advisory Committee on Higher Education Cost Efficiencies.

He said he is running for re-election because of the Alamo Colleges District’s current momentum, with a new chancellor coming on board and taking the community college system into a new era.

Zárate also mentioned the $450 million bond the district passed a year ago as a reason to remain on the board. He wants to oversee its progress and see the vision of the board realized through bond projects.

Hernandez, 25, is the youngest candidate running for the board. He graduated from Kennedy High School and took some dual-credit courses at Palo Alto College.

He works as a case manager at Roy Maas Youth Alternatives with students who have dealt with sex trafficking, homelessness, and other issues.

Hernandez, who is from San Antonio’s Southside, said the current board does not reflect the demographics of Alamo College’s current student body both in socioeconomic status and age.

“Not many people from my community run for politics, much less vote,” he said.

Nava is the executive director of support services in Somerset ISD. Prior to that, he worked in special education and curriculum and instruction in Somerset and South San Antonio ISDs. He received his doctorate in educational leadership and administration from UTSA.

He previously ran for Alamo Colleges District’s board, but was unsuccessful. Nava said the six years since his last race have allowed him to grow professionally and he feels optimistic about this year’s election.

A former student of San Antonio College, Nava said he believes the district could do a better job in financial transparency.

“We need to be transparent and be good stewards of the public money,” he said, noting the importance of this following the $450 million bond projects the district recently embarked on.

District 6
District 6 trustee Gene Sprague Credit: Courtesy / Alamo Colleges

In District 6, voters will choose between incumbent Gene Sprague, who was first elected to the position in 1994. Sprague is a radiology and pharmacology professor at UT Health San Antonio.

Sprague said now is a “critical time” to avoid any “disruption” on the board as the district is in an upward swing with a new chancellor and momentum for the coming years.

He said another term would allow him to oversee what he has been working on during his years on the board.

Sprague also cautioned against “factions” that want the board to take “five steps back” by re-examining what he views as a successful dual-credit partnership program with school districts and early-college high schools. He warned against canceling or charging for the program that is free to high school students.

Sprague’s challenger, Jacob Andrew Wong, is an employment specialist who currently works for the Alamo Colleges District system. He previously served as a student trustee on the board in 2014-15. Wong said he would quit his job with Alamo Colleges if elected.

Wong said he would bring a “complete view” – one of a former student and trustee, and now employee of the district – currently lacking among board members.

“Not one of them has a total picture, they have a 50,000-foot view,” he said.

Wong is most critical of the way trustees have handled financial woes that have stemmed from the district’s free offerings of dual-credit programs. He said trustees market the program as being used by the most needy students on the verge of dropping out, when in reality, some students who use it are high achievers.

He said when trustees initially voted to implement the program free of cost, they didn’t think through the financial impact that would follow.

District 7
District 7 trustee Yvonne Katz
District 7 trustee Yvonne Katz Credit: Courtesy / Alamo Colleges

In District 7, Board Chair Yvonne Katz is running against David Fischer. Katz was first elected in 2012. She spent nearly two decades serving as superintendent of Harlandale ISD and went on to serve as superintendent of other districts in Oregon and Houston.

Katz said she wants to serve a second term to continue the work she has done in the last six years and as board chair in the previous two.

If elected to a second term, she said she would work to engage the business community more, develop online classes to involve remote students, and keep tuition low.

Katz said in the past six years, the board has not raised taxes and she hopes to keep it that way, but said it will be a challenge with a tighter state budget projected for the coming year.

David Fischer is a retired university professor who has lived in the area for the past year-and-a-half. He could not be reached for comment in time for publication.

District 9
District 9 trustee Joe Jesse Sanchez Credit: Courtesy / Alamo Colleges

In District 9, incumbent Joe Jesse Sanchez is running to keep the seat he was first appointed to in November 2017. Sanchez recently retired from his job as the administrator of the Bexar County Juvenile Probation Department’s Juvenile Justice Academy, a program that serves students expelled from Bexar County districts. Throughout his career, he also worked in a number of school districts including Harlandale, Edgewood, and San Antonio ISDs.

If elected, Sanchez will fill the District 9 post for two years. He said his experience in education shows his dedication to students and providing the “best possible learning environment.”

Sanchez said if re-elected, he wants to focus on better communication from the district to potential students and school districts. He also said he wants to advocate for Alamo Colleges at the state level for better funding.

Sanchez’s challenger is Felix Grieder, a military veteran who works as a process engineer in USAA’s strategy and market department. Grieder’s district includes Northeast Lakeview College, which had a decade-long accreditation process. Grieder is critical of the time it took to achieve accreditation and said it fuels his desire to better the district’s governance.

He also said he wants to reduce the district’s “excessively high” administrative expenses and improve relations between the administration and faculty.

In the past 10 years, May elections in even years have failed to glean more than 7 percent of registered voter turnout. In the last election with similar circumstances, less than 3 percent of registered voters cast ballots.

This lackluster showing of the electorate may be part of the reason so few school board elections are contested. This year, Alamo Heights and North East ISDs cancelled their elections because only one candidate filed for the race.

Early voting starts April 23 and runs through May 1. Election day is May 5.

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.