On the second-to-last day of 2019, Harlandale Independent School District trustees capped off an eventful year with a vote to hire longtime HISD educator Gerardo Soto as the district’s newest superintendent.
Soto took the reins from interim Superintendent Samantha Gallegos, who stepped up to lead Harlandale when trustees and former district leader Rey Madrigal severed ties last summer amid a looming state takeover.
Since Texas Education Agency officials announced intentions to remove the elected board in favor of an appointed board of managers with the potential for a new state-appointed superintendent last June, communication from Austin to San Antonio has been limited. The district is currently in limbo without further direction from TEA.
On Dec. 30, the Harlandale board awarded Soto an annual salary of $207,500 and a contract that lasts through June 2022. Soto spoke with the Rivard Report about his path to the superintendency and the future of Harlandale ISD.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Can you talk about your time here in Harlandale ISD? Where did you start and what was the trajectory that led you to become superintendent?
I came from Medina Valley [ISD] to McCollum, I believe it was in 2002. I was hired initially as a history teacher and head basketball coach. I was there about seven years teaching and then got my master’s in management. My last year teaching, I did both. I was teaching and coaching, and then I was helping out as a [vice principal] at McCollum. That was fun stuff.
When did you know you wanted to move into administration?
I didn’t know. I was having really good success and developing great relationships with the students. I was still having fun and enjoying being hands on, being a foot soldier with our kids. But I had kids of my own and I wanted to see my kids participate in athletics and be part of their lives more.
Tell me about your transition to become the principal at Frank Tejeda Academy.
I had a lot of ideas on how this [academy] can better serve our community and our kids. I was fortunate enough to be given the position, and we did some great things at Frank Tejeda. We moved the graduation rates. I believe they were graduating 55 to 60 kids, and we doubled it by my third year there.
Not many superintendents have experience working in an alternative school. How does that shape your overall viewpoint as an educator?
It makes you believe that every child can learn. That’s the exposure to that child that has had it tough. It is easier to teach the kid that is wanting to come to school and bright-eyed, bushy tailed. Those are easy. What makes the best teachers are the ones that can teach that kid and teach the one who needs to [have] more of a carrot in front of them to produce.
Why did you want to move up to central office?
It was me envisioning. We can do a lot of things with our facilities. We can build, we can fix this, we can paint this. And that enticed me to say, now I can maybe help out other schools and impact their education [on] the facilities side of it.
How does your time as executive director over operations impact the way you view your current job?
You’re in charge of the biggest budget there is in the district. You still want to impact instruction and, so the way we did it was, I was able to eliminate [about] 20 positions from maintenance, operations, safety, and transportation. Those dollars [could] impact and be used in our instruction [department.] It’s a different aspect, but you always keep the end goal in mind, which is student learning.
You’re now three weeks into your new job as superintendent. What does the transition process look like?
You have to meet with people. I want to know what is going on, I want to be educated on every single thing. You have to rely on some key members, so having conversations and meeting one-on-one [is important]. [I’ve been having] heart-to-heart conversations with our board of trustees to make sure that the goals they have placed on our district [can become a reality].
[I will be] meeting with cabinet members as [well as] with some of the directors and principals. Eventually [I’m] going to see how we can start meeting with some teachers because teachers, they’re the most important resource for our kids.
What’s on the horizon for Harlandale – what are the opportunities you want to explore more and the challenges you’ll have to tackle?
We know [Texas] A&M-San Antonio is growing at such a rapid pace, [so we want to] continue to grow our relationship with A&M-San Antonio for our kids.
One of the biggest challenges is keeping our great teachers here at Harlandale, [especially those in their first five years.] We have some great staff members that we hire and recruit to come to HISD and a bulk of them do become lifers, they become life members of the Harlandale family. But the ones that we lose, we [replace] them [with] brand new [staff]. We train them and we spend money giving them [professional development]. They become great, and other districts come pluck them from us.
Can you talk about Harlandale’s enrollment? We’ve seen a number of surrounding school districts face declining enrollment in recent years.
We’re like every other Bexar County school [district]. … It’s not just in Bexar County, I believe it is statewide. It is concerning for all the superintendents. We did a study about a year ago to track where our kids are going. [The issue is more with students going in between districts like] from here to SAISD to South San.
We are landlocked and, as you can see, Southside [ISD] is booming, they’ve got plenty of space. We have some land right inside [Loop] 410. Some developers [have approached] the district, so we’ll see where the district and board want to go with that land. Other than that, we don’t have any more land.
There’s a looming state intervention that’s been in place since this summer. Since then, TEA has been silent on next steps. How do you deal with that when trying to manage a district?
It’s a dynamic situation. We’re here to focus on kids, and we owe it to our kids to [educate them.]
What would you want people to know about you outside the role of superintendent?
I have six girls. One from A&M-San Antonio was playing volleyball. I have a junior who plays basketball. And then I have two girls in elementary who are in volleyball. And then I have two smaller ones that are just cheerleaders right now, following their big sisters around. My time away from [work] is [reserved for] my children.