State of the City audience listen to Mayor Castro.
More than 1,000 listened to Mayor Castro's State of the City speech.

A small group of public school superintendents gathered Friday morning at the Liberty Bar in Southtown for a breakfast hosted by Communities in Schools, the inner city student support program whose motto says it all: Keeping Kids in School.

The program is highly successful and woefully underfunded, which might describe any number of proven education initiatives that merit greater support. Superintendents from the Northside, Northeast, Harlandale, and Edgewood districts, the districts most engaged with CIS, were on hand.

“I wish Communities in Schools were in every Bexar County school, even the so-called rich schools because of the impact the program has on that bottom 10%,” said Dr. John Folks, the highly-respected and soon-to-retire superintendent of the city’ largest and fastest growing district, the Northside Independent School District.

Unfortunately, CIS is not in every Bexar County school. Officially, the program serves about 7,500 at-risk students in 72 schools.

Boards that Put Politics First, Kids Second

Folks has had an extraordinary 25-year run as a public schools superintendent, in contrast to the average life span of a superintendent’s life span of just a few years. School boards routinely oust superintendents when disagreements arise, often at great expense to taxpayers as contracts are settled and with serious disruption to district operations as everyone awaits the results of the search for the next superintendent.

NISD superintendent
John Folk

I asked the superintendents to talk about their biggest challenge in improving outcomes in a city that suffers from dropout rates that top 40% in some inner city schools. There was no disagreement: state funding cuts and politically driven school boards.

Too many individuals seek election to school boards for the wrong reasons, they said. Many candidates covet the political power that comes with a board seat, but lack the skills, experience, and in some cases, the education to do the job.

Later Friday, Mayor Julián Castro  delivered his annual State of the City address to an overflow audience of more than 1,000 people at the Grand Hyatt Hotel. The city’s $596 million bond election will be held May 12, but Castro made it clear his Brainpower Initiative, his early  child education program on the November ballot is his highest priority. That seems to reflect his confidence the May bond will pass with solid community support, but it also signals a shift in the public conversation, which lately has been dominated by various urban transformation projects.

State of the City audience listen to Mayor Castro.
More than 1,000 listened to Mayor Castro’s State of the City speech.

Castro is asking voters to approve a 1/8 cent sales tax increase, thus raising San Antonio to the maximum 8.25% sales tax, to fund his annual $24 million (est.) Brainpower Initiative. The money would fuel new investment in early childhood education programs. Two Centers of Excellence would be established on the city’s north and south sides. Local funds would be combined with state funds to expand more pre-K and kindergarten classes from half day to full day, creating more learning opportunities for children in key stages of development and learning.

The initiative is, pardon the pun, a no-brainer, a small sum in the scheme of things. A city that can invest in building new sports facilities and revamping old ones shouldn’t hesitate to invest in the future of its own children, especially so modestly, As the Express-News points out in its coverage, the Mayor said the tax hike amounts to a mere $7.74 per household each year.

An Education Superfund

The Brainpower Initiative is an excellent start, but the times call for even bolder ideas. Citizens should be prepared to offer greater support to its “education mayor.” Most of us are content to sit back and watch Castro and other civic leaders take responsibility for addressing the citywide education funding crisis, and that is what it is: a crisis. Thousands of teaching and support positions are being lost throughout the metropolitan area. After-school programs are being cut or eliminated. Classroom sizes are growing, academic choices are being curtailed.

There is little or no hope that the top state officeholders are willing to do anything about it. Gov. Rick Perry and the Republican majority in the Texas Legislature believe taxpayers would rather have elected officials slash spending than underwrite greater investment in education, public health and other community initiatives. It looks increasingly unlikely to me that a weakened Perry will run again as governor. Voters should insist that the next gubernatorial candidates in all parties run on education agendas.

The average taxpayer also finds its easy to blame the system, and not without some justification. Public school reform at all levels is an urgent necessity, and resistance to change runs deeply. But it’s also true that most teachers and administrators are dedicated, head working and skilled. They are simply overwhelmed by the task at hand.

Most citizens do not participate in the process. They do not vote in school board elections. They do not go into neighborhood schools to experience firsthand the realities that confront educators. They believe the dropout problem is beyond repair. Nothing could be further from the truth, in my opinion.

Innovative programs exist at every turn. San Antonio companies that play an active role in local public schools are making a real difference. I will be writing soon about the CIS partnership with Rackspace and its adoption of seven schools in the Northeast Independent School District near The Castle, its growing campus off I-35 and Walzem.

A strong, confident Mayor Castro can leverage a probable big victory on the Brainpower Initiative in November. Why not create a new citywide Education Superfund, perhaps an endowment,  that calls on every business and every citizen to invest in proven local programs that keep students in school and on track to seek a higher education.

Cafe College already is making a big difference.

Such a Superfund could serve as an umbrella entity linking together the many good programs and services that too often operate independently  of one another. Resources could be pooled, administrative costs could be reduced, more dollars could got to results-oriented programming. School boards would not manage any of the funds, thus eliminating influence peddling. Funds would be paid directly into programs competing for monies used on measured outcomes.

Such a Superfund would have two goals: reverse the dropout rate, and get more Bexar County students to attend college.

The Rivard Report coverage of the recent speech here by Geoffrey Canada of the much-celebrated (and for some, overhyped) Harlem Children’s Zone, provoked a lively exchange of commentary among some readers. Love him or not, Canada’s message of combining vision with a commitment to change is one the city can hear without individual interest groups — teachers, administrators — seeing it as a threat.

Currently, companies such as H-E-B, Valero Energy and Rackspace shoulder a disproportionate burden of charitable giving and active volunteerism. Mid-sized and small businesses are not equipped to participate as readily, and budget fewer resource for community-based giving. A city that builds an Education Superfund will allow every business, every citizen to participate.

San Antonio’s education challenge isn’t Mayor Castro’s problem, but his willingness to stake his mayoral legacy on improving education provides a once in a lifetime opportunity. for all of us. Nothing is stopping us. If we want to be a smarter city with greater possibilities for one and all, we can do it.

John Folks photo courtesy of NISD.

Mayor Castro photo courtesy of City of San Antonio.

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.