Education Reporter Emily Donaldson’s byline has appeared on 13 articles over 25 days in January, with more to come. Add my recent column on the issue of arming teachers in East Central Independent School District and the work of four other staff reporters, and we have published 18 education articles so far this month.
No other media in San Antonio can match that level of production, yet it’s not enough to keep up. Last week alone, there were more than 10 meetings held by school boards among Bexar County’s 15 independent school districts.
On Tuesday, the Edgewood ISD school board replaced a school board trustee who recently resigned without any public accounting. On Wednesday, North East ISD’s board also replaced a trustee. That same night, trustees in South San ISD voted on a resolution to reopen three shuttered schools by next school year.
On Thursday, East Central ISD trustees deliberated in closed session about a proposal to arm teachers, while Harlandale ISD trustees decided to extend the contract of Superintendent Rey Madrigal, who is implicated in allegations made by the Texas Education Agency in a preliminary investigative report. Should Madrigal be dismissed, taxpayers in the district could be stuck with Madrigal’s six-figure severance package.
While all this was going on, other boards also were meeting on less consequential but still important matters. Not to mention life in the classrooms for teachers and students.
Can you even name the 15 districts? They are: Alamo Heights * East Central * Edgewood * Fort Sam Houston * Harlandale * Judson * Lackland * North East * Northside * Randolph Field * San Antonio * Somerset * South San Antonio * Southside * Southwest.
The poor academic performance and the politics of personal self-interest at four of the districts has led to recent state intervention or investigations. Edgewood has a board of managers governing the district. South San had a conservator appointed and pulled from the district. Southside also has a board of managers. Harlandale has been the subject of a TEA investigation that likely will result in sanctions.
Is this any way to educate Bexar County’s 323,000 public school district students? Put another way, if we were designing a public school system today, would it look like the current system of geographically defined districts of varying sizes, resources and leadership? I can’t imagine anyone nodding their head yes.
Some readers will dig into other Texas metro areas to search for data showing big school districts have their own set of problems. True, but here is what you cannot argue: San Antonio is the poorest big city in the state with the highest degree of economic segregation; school districts play a significant role in perpetuating the inequities that were centuries in the making.
There are more than 100 school board trustees in Bexar County, most elected by a few thousand or fewer voters in a county of 2 million people, with 21 of the seats to be decided in the next election cycle. Trustees wield enormous economic and political power, voting on billions of dollars of spending. Some districts are models of prudent fiscal management, while others have deep legacies of cronyism, machine politics, inside dealing, and corruption. Some fall in the middle.
Bexar County’s 15 different district superintendents earned a little less than $3.5 million in 2017-18. In comparison, the superintendent of Texas’ largest school district, Houston ISD, which educated about 215,000 students that same year, was paid $345,000.
Superintendent pay, of course, is not the only issue. The economies of scale that could be had with single contract purchasing power surely would amount to far greater savings on a number of fronts.
Barring miracles in the Texas Legislature to address public school finance as the very serious and pressing matter it is, school district consolidation is the only local path to equalizing education opportunities throughout the county’s network of more than 500 school campuses. And yes, the number of physical schools would shrink under consolidation. It is now very difficult for individual superintendents and school boards to stand up to neighborhood resistance. No matter how poorly a school performs, not matter how badly it fails its students, neighbors will fight to preserve that school.
Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath is a change agent who wants to see Texas public schools perform better. Yet the state is a big part of the problem: policies that mandate teaching to the test, grading schools on an A-F system, politicizing the selection and content of textbooks, and above all, the Texas Legislature’s diversion of tax revenues away from schools and into other pots.
Morath or legislators could lead efforts to force failing, mismanaged districts to merge with other districts. Such reform would be met with howls, but the hue and cry eventually would give way if the process were managed properly.
Consolidation would require enormous political resolve and considerable time and planning, but it would put Bexar County on a more promising path to better and more equitable education outcomes.