In a preliminary report, the Texas Education Agency has found South San ISD board members Connie Prado, left, and Gilbert Rodriguez in violation of state law. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

South San Independent School District board members overstepped their authority last year in violation of Texas education code, according to state investigators.

The Texas Education Agency began conducting a special investigation into South San ISD board actions last April after three San Antonio-area legislators – state Sens. Pete Flores (R-Pleasanton) and José Menéndez (D-San Antonio) and state Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) – urged the education commissioner to appoint a conservator to the district. In January 2019, three South San ISD board members also wrote a letter to Commissioner Mike Morath asking him to start looking into the district’s governance.

In a preliminary report obtained by the San Antonio Report, state investigators found that individual trustees overreached in the district’s day-to-day operations and failed to collaborate with the superintendent on necessary items, which “demonstrated an inability to provide leadership for the district.”

“This inability to govern caused dissent between board members, the Superintendent and other district leadership and was detrimental to the students in South San Antonio Independent School District, thus affecting student outcomes,” the report stated.

Although investigators found violations of state law, they recommended appointing a state monitor, which has less oversight power than a conservator. South San ISD already has a state monitor in place, who regularly recommended a conservator be appointed to oversee the board. It’s not clear if she would be replaced or if there would be two monitors if Morath accepts the investigators’ recommendation.

Trustee and current board President Gilbert Rodriguez and trustee and previous board President Connie Prado were specifically named in the investigation’s findings. Rodriguez, who was board vice president in 2019, acted outside of his scope of authority when he contacted a Texas A&M University-San Antonio professor and a Port San Antonio vice president to ask about establishing a cybersecurity academy, according to the preliminary report. Texas law prohibits trustees from acting individually on behalf of the board without an explicit vote to do so.

Both Rodriguez and Prado, who is running for reelection in South San ISD and for a seat on the Alamo Colleges District board, failed to work with then-Superintendent Alexandro Flores on board agenda items, according to the report. The report also details an email Flores sent Prado last May that said he expected her to work with him on what items make it to the agenda, as many of the items require “extensive time and effort from administration to compile and create.”

“Your willingness and disposition to collaborate with me with respect to the aforementioned factors speaks volumes of your intent,” Flores wrote last May.

Flores left the district in September 2019 after trustees bought out his contract, and three board members resigned in protest of the move.

Prado vigorously disputed the investigation’s findings in a Thursday phone call, calling the conclusion that she had not collaborated as required with the former superintendent “absolutely not true.”

“When we were setting the agenda, the agenda was set between himself, myself, and the attorney, and we had a monitor at that time,” Prado said. “And we were all in the agenda-setting meeting. If there was something I was doing that was not appropriate, or if I was overstepping my boundaries, or trying to interfere with the day-to-day operations, that took the attorneys for them to tell me, ‘You can’t do that.’ But never once did that ever come up.”

Rodriguez could not be reached for comment.

While board members can govern and oversee management of the school district, Texas law requires the board to collaborate with the superintendent on district-wide policies linked to the educational plan of the district and gives the superintendent responsibility for day-to-day management.

“Failing to collaborate with the superintendent on actionable items prevents the superintendent from giving recommendations and limits his ability to make informed decisions on implementation of Board policy pertaining to the educational plan,” the TEA’s preliminary report states.

In addition to examining South San ISD’s governance, the TEA also looked into the district’s contract procurement practices, and trustees’ decision to reopen campuses without the superintendent’s recommendation.

Investigators did not find sufficient evidence to show that board members violated contract procurement laws. And based on the evidence available, investigators found that board members did not overstep their authority by acting to reopen campuses without the superintendent’s recommendation.

The investigation and preliminary report on South San ISD come after a string of state investigations into other San Antonio-area school districts. Most recently, the TEA appointed a conservator in February for Harlandale ISD with the power to override board decisions.

Prado said a special meeting would need to be called to brief the board on the preliminary report. South San board trustees can request an informal review of the preliminary report by Nov. 2. If no requests are filed by then, then the preliminary report will become final.

This article has been updated to include South San ISD trustee Connie Prado’s comments.

Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang is the local government reporter at the San Antonio Report.