The Harlandale Independent School District will not transition to a four-day school week next year after spending the last month gathering feedback from the community on the proposal. 

The move comes as Harlandale officials mull extreme measures to cut back spending to quell a $12 million budget deficit, including the possibility of closing and repurposing elementary campuses and other buildings. 

Parents were notified Tuesday about the decision to keep the five-day school week in a letter from Superintendent Gerardo Soto, who thanked them for their participation in the process.

“After reading community and staff input and looking at the current data, the district has concluded that the existing traditional calendar better meets the current instructional needs of both staff and students,” Soto wrote. “The proposed traditional calendar maintains existing hours for staff and students and allows for 15 additional instructional days for students, compared to the 4-day instructional week calendar.”

In the letter, Soto said the district will explore other ways to embed teacher planning days throughout the school year and look for opportunities to provide staff and students with extended weekends “to be with family and loved ones.”

The four-day week was proposed as a way to increase teacher recruitment and retention amid an ongoing teacher shortage. La Vernia ISD approved a pilot four-day school week in February after widespread resignations at the end of the last school year. 

Amid the battle for teacher retention and a financial crisis that is a decade in the making, enrollment in the district has dropped since 2013 from over 15,000 to just over 12,000 in 2023. 

“A lot of our children are graduating and moving out from the Harlandale area,” Soto told the San Antonio Report, listing one of the reasons for the decline in enrollment.

The students remaining in the district are also attending school less often, which is key to the district because it is funded by the state based on average daily attendance. That metric has fallen from 93% in the 2018-19 school year to 89.77% in the 2022-23 school year. While that is an increase from the two pandemic years, when matched with declining enrollment it has resulted in Harlandale losing millions of dollars from the state. 

According to a demographic analysis, the district will experience a continuous decline in enrollment through 2031, resulting in a net decrease of more than 3,100 students. 

From 2018 to 2021, the district saw a 19% decrease in resident elementary schools.

During Tuesday’s town hall, Soto said there would be a domino effect, with fewer students entering middle and high schools in the coming years. 

A Harlandale ISD mother voices her concerns about the district’s proposed changes on Tuesday.
A Harlandale ISD mother hears about the district’s proposed changes discussed at Tuesday’s town hall meeting. Credit: Brenda Bazán / San Antonio Report

The COVID-19 pandemic played a role in the decrease, according to a presentation at a recent district town hall event, with pre-K and kindergarten enrollments sharply declining. 

Those enrollment numbers have not returned to pre-pandemic levels in Harlandale. 

Low birth rates, declining market share and a lack of residential development are the driving forces behind the decreasing student population, according to a demographic study that was presented last week at Harlandale Middle School.

The number of staff has also decreased since 2017 from 2,229 to 2,007 through attrition.

The fund balance, or savings account for the district, also has steadily dropped. There was a reprieve in the 2021-22 school year, however, due in part to the use of money from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, a grant program authorized during the coronavirus pandemic. 

COVID-19 funds intended to help schools grapple with learning loss and other expenses helped stave off some of the budgetary impacts in the first two years at Harlandale and in the South San Antonio Independent School District, which also is experiencing a budget crisis. Those funds were not an option long-term, and the enrollment trends spell more financial stress in the future.

Enrollment declines have led to the major underutilization of several Harlandale campuses, including Columbia Heights, Morrill and Vestal elementary schools, which are at around half capacity, and Rayburn Elementary School, which is at 63% enrollment. 

In response, the district has a plan to reshuffle existing departments into schools while dispersing students from those schools to other campuses. One example of the reorganization include repurposing the Scheh Center, which currently houses the Harlandale Alternative Center, as a multipurpose center that includes fine arts dressing rooms and staging areas. 

Alternative school students will be moved into Vestal, which will also house a career and technical education center. Vestal students would relocate to Gillette, Carroll Bell and Bellaire elementary schools under the plan, which would utilize funds from the district’s 2022 bond project.

Soto said if the plan moves forward, transportation would be provided to students affected by the transfers to their new schools.

He also said the board was revising the plan based on community feedback received after each town hall.

In another letter sent to parents, Soto said the plan was not final, with a board vote likely later in the month.

“We understand that this news may be difficult, especially for those whose children attend one of the affected schools,” he said, “Please know that our top priority is the well-being and education of our students, and we are committed to supporting them during this time of uncertainty.”

The growing police and technology departments will be housed in Rayburn along with a Boys & Girls Clubs “clubhouse program” that will be free to Harlandale students.

Harlandale ISD Mother Roxanne Garza voices her concerns about the district’s proposed changes on Tuesday.
Harlandale ISD mother Roxanne Garza voices her concerns about the district’s proposed changes on Tuesday. Credit: Brenda Bazán / San Antonio Report

Parents pushed back against the plan in the Tuesday night town hall.

Roxanne Garza, whose children attend Rayburn, which is at more than 60% enrollment, was among several parents who opposed the proposal.

“How are you going to take from our kids and go throw them into other schools when we’re doing just fine now,” Garza said. “I pay taxes, just like you said, I send my kids to school every day. It is not my fault, or my child’s fault that other parents or other circumstances occur that their kids do not show up for school every day.”

Evelyn Fullenwider also shared her concerns in an interview with The San Antonio Report on Tuesday. She has three children who attend Morrill Elementary, one child in high school and another on the way.

The family lives just four houses away from Morrill, the first school built in the district. The school had the highest rate of decline and is unable to house many students, according to the presentation. 

“My child already has social-emotional issues, and change is gonna be really hard for him,” she said. “I think the schools that are mentioned for them to move to … I don’t feel that they’re safe there.”

In addition to a new school environment, she is worried about the safety of navigating new campuses near busy intersections. 

Fullenwider also said Morrill is more than a building that is being lost for the kids. 

“The families that are there are so close-knit, and to just watch that evaporate and disappear somewhere outside is hard to … cope with,” she added. “We don’t do well with discontinuity.”

With students being transferred to Adams, Gilbert and Wright elementary schools, Harlandale’s administrative office would be moved into Morrill Elementary under the district’s plan.

The current administrative office will be repurposed as the expanded care center, which provides services for social-emotional and mental well-being. The center has had 517 referrals so far this year, requiring a waitlist to be used on three separate occasions, according to the district. 

Other buildings impacted by the reorganization include Columbia Heights and the Jewel C. Wietzel Center, named for the first special education teacher in the district.

A series of community town halls will be held to allow the community to engage with staff on the plan, in addition to a number of called meetings that will allow public comment. 

Key dates for the reorganization presentation:

  • March 8: Workshop, Early College High School, 6:15 p.m.
  • March 20: Board meeting at Collier Elementary School, 6:15 p.m.
  • March 21: Town hall meeting at Leal Middle School at 5:30 p.m.
  • March 27: Special meeting at ECHS, where a vote is expected, 6:15 p.m.

The meetings will also be streamed on the district’s YouTube page. 

Teachers, counselors, nurses and social workers at the schools that face closure will be put on a “priority transfer list,” where they can name their top three transfer choices. That list will be for the 2023-24 school year only, according to the presentation. 

If an employee does not complete a priority transfer document, or if their choices are not available, they will be transferred based on student needs and certifications, according to the district. 

Auxiliary staff including paraprofessionals, custodians and food service workers will be transferred based on student needs. 

Transfers will not have to interview for their new positions. 

Staff photojournalist Brenda Bazán contributed to this story.