Perhaps the most politically interesting school board election on May 6 will be in San Antonio Independent School District, where systemic changes driven by the district’s reform-minded Superintendent Pedro Martinez have not come without pushback. Three incumbents – Steve Lecholop (D1), Debra Guerrero (D3), and Art Valdez (D4) – will face challengers with connections to a pre-Martinez SAISD.
The San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel is endorsing all incumbents. Sylvester Perez, the superintendent who preceded Martinez in the job and who is now retired and living in Boerne, is backing two challengers to board incumbents.
The rest of the story lies in campaign donation disclosures, forms filed by the candidates listing donors, and donation amounts.
In addition to friends and family members pitching in to the tune of $25, $50, and $100, almost all campaign contribution disclosures include a smattering of lawyers and accountants hoping to be top-of-mind when the school district has needs. In districts with bond projects, including Southside ISD, Judson ISD, Alamo Heights ISD, the Alamo Community College District, and the City of San Antonio, it’s also common for contractors to donate to campaigns. Such contributions present a good picture of those with some stake (or who would like to have some stake) in the district.
In SAISD, the donors reflect something else. As the city’s largest inner-city district and the school district for downtown and adjacent neighborhoods, SAISD leadership has been under intense scrutiny in recent years. Martinez’s ambitious agenda and a demonstrably functional board have turned that scrutiny into investment.
That investment is reflected in the campaign finances of Lecholop, Guerrero, and Valdez. With many donors in common, the incumbents have raised far more than their opponents. All three received $2,500 from H-E-B Chairman and educational philanthropist Charles Butt, whose personal investment in SAISD is in the millions of dollars. Guerrero and Valdez also got support from San Antonio Kids First, a political action committee in the district that was also active in last fall’s successful bond and tax ratification campaigns.
Lecholop, 35, a lawyer with Rosenthal Pauerstein Sandoloski Agather, had raised $31,505 according to a campaign finance report filed April 6, the largest campaign chest of any Bexar County school board candidate. Lecholop was a Teach for America (TFA) corps member before he joined the board.
Donors ranged from individuals within Lecholop’s district to Arthur Rock, a philanthropist who follows school reform agendas and donates across the country, most notably to TFA and KIPP charter schools. Many of the district’s high-profile initiatives, which have garnered private support, are located in District 1. Joel Harris, CEO of City Education Partners, is another donor to Lecholop’s campaign, as is Victoria Rico, chair of the George W. Brackenridge Foundation. Harris and Rico represent philanthropic interest in SAISD initiatives.
As of April 13, Lecholop said his campaign contributions had exceeded $55,000, far more than he likely needs for the remaining weeks of the campaign. Early voting begins April 24 in the election that also includes mayoral and City Council races, as well as the $850 million municipal bond.
“The donations represent a vote of confidence from the community in work we are doing,” Lecholop said.
The money also shows that he takes the race and his position on the board seriously, Lecholop said. He didn’t want to jeopardize the opportunity to continue working with the unified board simply by failing to ask for campaign contributions.
One donation request to an education advocate resulted in a donation from Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, a law firm specializing in debt collection. A recent profile by CNN Money described the Austin-based firm’s influence in Texas politics from school board elections to state legislative races. When Lecholop found out about the connection, he decided to give the contribution back.
“As a rule, I would never give preferential treatment to a campaign donor, no matter the size of the contribution. Given the assertions in the CNN Money article, however, in order to avoid the appearance of impropriety, I am returning the donation to Linebarger,” Lecholop said.
Lecholop faces Sandra Ojeda Medina, 64, a retired teacher and Republican political activist. Medina’s sole donor in the 30-day filing was Sylvester Perez, the SAISD superintendent from 2013-2015. Perez could not be reached for comment as of the publication of this article.
Since retiring, Medina has been involved with several scholarship- granting organizations. She points to her 41 years working in “the education business,” six state certifications, and a variety of jobs across the district. Martinez is doing a good job, she said, but she wants to make sure that new schools and ideas are balanced with traditional schools across the district. “I’m concerned about whether or not schools have the same opportunities from one schools to another.”
Medina is also concerned about school violence. “Not that SAISD has a school violence problem, as much as in the rest of the country,” she said. Other campus concerns include maintenance issues. “Custodians are using chemicals that are not the most friendly.”
Medina estimated that she originally worked for SAISD from 1975 until the late ’90s. She then worked for North East ISD as a community specialist and counselor. She ran for Texas State Representative in 2004. After her foray into conservative politics she came back to work for SAISD, where she eventually retired in 2015.
“I was 62, soon to be 63, and I was tired,” Medina said. “I enjoyed it all, but it was time for me to move on.”
Since then Medina has been active in various charitable organizations.
The district almost didn’t renew Medina’s contract in 2014, after a verbal altercation with a student prompted an incident report from a fellow teacher. Upon learning of the investigation, Medina sent a complaint to Donnie Whited, principal of Estrada Achievement Center, where she worked. Medina characterized Estrada as a specialized school for “incorrigible children” where she questioned whether her sensitive and direct style was compatible.
Nonetheless, Medina said, the incident has been misunderstood. “It was truly blown out of proportion.”
After the investigation concluded, the district did not fire Medina.
Medina’s husband, Noe Medina, was also an employee of SAISD and was demoted when it was discovered that he was using his role in the athletic department to channel funds totaling $181,630 to several businesses in which he had an interest, including one titled N&S Enterprises, the name of which stood for “Noe & Sandra.”
Such issues are not uncommon in economically isolated districts in which the school district is the largest employer. However, as the recent boom in downtown revitalization and development within SAISD has increased investment in the district, the current board’s commitment to transparency has won trust from many. The recent appointment of Christina Martinez, vice president of external relations for Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Texas, to replace former District 6 Trustee Olga Hernandez, who was indicted in a federal bribery investigation, was considered by some to be one of the last steps away from dysfunction.
District 3 incumbent Debra Guerrero, 50, is an apartment developer with The NRP Group. Appointed to the board in 2012 to serve an unexpired term, Guerrero was elected to serve a full term in 2013. She previously served on San Antonio City Council. Her tenure was clouded by questions about close ties to Henry Muñoz as his firm, Kell Muñoz, continued to win controversial contracts and other battles at City Hall.
Upon leaving Council, Guerrero went to work for Muñoz and then on to other private companies, but she always watched the SAISD school board and its influence on her neighborhood. When an opening to fill the unexpired term of Carlos Villarreal occurred, Guerrero felt the time was right to contribute to a needed change.
Thus far, her time on the board has been free of controversy. Guerrero committed to signing on for another campaign only because she had been so inspired by the work the board has been able to accomplish.
“It’s a team,” Guerrero said. “I made a commitment, and I have to follow it through.”
Guerrero has seen strong support from the business community, raising $14,300 as of the 30-day finance report. In addition to Butt and San Antonio Kids First, donors included businessmen Tom C. Frost, David Zachry, and Rad Weaver.
Guerrero also received a donation from Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson. In her public service experience, she has seen the firm as a local employer and corporate citizen in addition to its public contracts.
“They’ve always been involved [in the business end],” Guerrero said. “But they’ve always been involved in the community. Here in San Antonio there’s a deep commitment to being a good corporate citizen.”
When the debt collection firm’s contract with SAISD came up for renewal in 2016, it faced the same scrutiny as any vendor, and its strong performance led to renewal, Guerrero said.
Her challengers are George Hinojosa, a 61-year-old retiree, and education consultant Lorna Klokkenga, 54. Hinojosa’s campaign is self-financed. Klokkenga’s largest campaign donors are Perez at $500 and World Class Homes President Brazos Guido at $1,000.
Klokkenga was principal of Highlands High School from 2006-2014. She points to a steadily increasing graduation rate during her tenure there, while opponents point to falling SAT, ACT, and AP scores.
Klokkenga explained that during her time at Highlands, more students were leaving for charter schools and more of the schools feeding into Highlands fell into “improvement required” status based on test scores. As a result, she saw classes of freshmen who were increasingly far behind.
“We could still close the achievement gap to get them to graduate, but it was harder and harder to get them college-ready,” Klokkenga said.
This experience, along with community feedback she has garnered while walking neighborhoods in the district, have reinforced Klokkenga’s belief that comprehensive high schools need more attention. In-district charters such as the Advanced Learning Academy and CAST Tech are great, but the majority of students still need improvement in their neighborhood schools.
Perez’s administration moved Klokkenga to SAISD’s central office as senior director for school improvement. When Martinez restructured the central office, Klokkenga’s position was downgraded. Consulting work was going well, so Klokkenga retired from the district and has been self-employed since.
Perez is also supporting her campaign. Klokkenga said that she reached out to him as a friend and former colleague, and he agreed to support her based on her knowledge and work in education.
District 4 incumbent Art Valdez, 69, is a retired aircraft systems engineer. He will face former SAISD board member Adela Segovia, 51, who owns Amazing Home Community Services, a home living assistance provider for people with intellectual disabilities.
Valdez has raised $7,500, the least of the three incumbents. However, his opponent had logged neither campaign contributions nor expenditures as of her April 6 report.
In 2013, Valdez defeated the incumbent Segovia for the District 4 seat. During that election, San Antonio Express-News columnist Brian Chasnoff interviewed Segovia after Valdez won key endorsements. Segovia described herself as “non-traditional” with a heavy interest in “accountability.” District employees said they found her needlessly combative, but Segovia insisted this was part of being a diligent board member.
In 2010, some in the community called for Segovia’s resignation from the board when a mural by well-known painter Vincent Valdez, Art Valdez’s son, created when he was a student at Burbank High School, was painted over during campus revitalization projects.