Harlandale Independent School District trustees responded Thursday night to a scathing Texas Education Agency report that called for state-appointed managers to replace elected district trustees.
After about an hour and a half in closed session, trustees emerged and restated their opposition to the TEA’s final report.
“The final report is based largely on incidents that date back as far back as 2007 and concern the actions of school board members who have not served on our board for years,” board President Ricardo Moreno said, reading from a prepared statement. “It is unfair and frankly illogical to believe punitive measures, including removing this board, will correct alleged violations that are largely unconnected to the current trustees.”
District legal counsel told reporters that the board will likely move forward with an appeal after it receives notification of the state Commissioner of Education’s decision on recommended sanctions. Commissioner Mike Morath has yet to decide how he will proceed with the report and has no timeline to do so, a TEA spokeswoman said Tuesday.
Once the TEA notifies the district about what sanctions will be imposed on it, the board can appeal the decision through an administrative hearing process, district counsel Albert Tovar said. Those sanctions could include installing a board of managers, which would replace the elected board of trustees, and a conservator, who has the power to override a board’s vote.
In his response Thursday night, Moreno questioned TEA’s findings that Harlandale trustees violated the Open Meetings Act, mismanaged finances, and failed to govern the district effectively. Refuting each claim individually, Moreno called the proposed sanctions “unsupported and unreasonable.”
Gina Castañeda, a longtime district critic who filed some of the original complaints that helped trigger the TEA’s investigation, was disappointed that the board didn’t discuss the report in open session.
“It is just a show,” Castañeda said. “It’s a total waste. They don’t care. They care more about themselves than they do about the kids.”
She also expressed concerns about the money the district is putting toward legal services to fight the TEA’s report.
State Rep. Leo Pacheco, a San Antonio Democrat who graduated from Harlandale High School in 1976, told reporters that he hoped TEA wouldn’t appoint a board of managers.
After reading the report, Pacheco felt it was the compilation of a lot of smaller issues and lacked any big reason to disband elected governance.
“I see a whole bunch of little stuff that in it of itself would warrant a slap on the hand,” Pacheco said.
Pacheco’s kids and wife also graduated from Harlandale ISD schools. He described his community as having “small-town flavor.” If the state disbands the district’s elected board, it would be devastating to the community, he said.
If the state decides to take control of the district’s governance, Harlandale ISD would become the third district in Bexar County in which the State has intervened in recent years. Edgewood ISD and Southside ISD also have boards of managers, but are in the process of transitioning back to elected control.
Statewide, there are just four districts with boards of managers. Harlandale could become the fifth. The TEA also is investigating South San Antonio ISD, which could eventually have a conservator or board of managers appointed if the state agency finds problems with the district’s governance.
TEA first began investigating Harlandale in 2017 after complaints alleged nepotism, issues in the district’s procurement process, financial mismanagement, and dysfunctional governance.
Last Friday, the state agency delivered its final report, which responded to district arguments against the TEA’s initial findings. In the report, the state agency reiterated many of its findings from its initial report, including:
- Harlandale Superintendent Rey Madrigal made four agreements and payments to Terracon Consultants without board approval, in violation of local board policy and state law.
- The school board failed to monitor district finances to ensure Madrigal properly maintained the district’s financial procedures and records, in violation of state law.
- Board members acted individually on behalf of the board, exceeded the scope of their authority, and failed to collaborate with district administration, in violation of state law.
- Trustees held meetings through group text messaging and failed to conduct the meetings as open to the public, in violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act.
Read the full report here.
Much of the report focuses on Harlandale ISD’s interactions with Jasmine Engineering to oversee bond projects from 2006 to 2015.
TEA officials pointed out an unusual provision in the initial request for qualifications, which was extended in 2007. It required applicants to have a local office in San Antonio for a minimum of 12 years.
“This severe limitation is highly questionable and contrary to equal opportunity for other commissioning agents who may have been able to establish a local office, or despite location, have more than the 12 years requisite experience commissioning in the San Antonio area,” the report states. “As a result, in May 2007 [Harlandale ISD] received only two responses to the RFQ.”
The TEA found that the district failed to solicit new bids for other projects and instead repeatedly amended its contract with Jasmine. This, state officials said, violates state and local procurement laws, which are intended to ensure equal opportunity to vendors throughout the state.
The report also mentioned an ongoing construction project at Gillette Elementary School to repair piers. In 2012, the board disregarded a report from its Building Committee that stated Slay Engineering recommended the repair of one pier at Gillette. The board instead followed Jasmine Engineering’s suggestion to repair 36 piers at a much higher cost, the report states.
To date, the pier repairs have gone on for more than five years and have yet to be completed, the report states. The initial proposal to repair one pier was estimated at about $185,000. The estimated cost to repair 36 piers is $4.4 million. The board has also paid about $212,000 to Jasmine Engineering to oversee the project.
The TEA requested an interview with Jasmine Azima, the founder of Jasmine Engineering. She declined the request, according to the report.
The report also mentioned an incident involving former Superintendent Robert Jaklich, who resigned from his position in 2012. Jaklich told the TEA that a former and a current trustee threatened him with the loss of his job if he did not terminate the district’s assistant supervisor of maintenance and operations.
At the conclusion of its 41-page report, TEA officials wrote that interviews with trustees and former and current district employees revealed significant dysfunction; an “improper dependency relationship between certain Board Members and an outside contractor for possible exchange of monies, gifts, meals, and other in-kind donations;” and trustees acting outside their scope of authority.
“The findings establish that a systemic breakdown of the HISD Board of Trustees’ ability to govern and manage HISD prevents the Board from carrying out the powers and duties as provided by the Texas Education Code or other law …,” the report states.
The report recommended that Harlandale ISD adopt policies and procedures to make sure the district complies with state law and that the district undergo a forensic audit related to contract procurement.