By Robert Rivard

Building a better educated community of downtown residents is key to building a better downtown city, but are current efforts enough?

Mayor Julián Castro
Mayor Julián Castro

Mayor Julián Castro is betting on long-term transformation. His Brainpower Initiative, a five-year, $146.5 million early childhood learning program, is an argument for spending less on at-risk public school students and more on pre-K four-year-olds. Reaching children before they start school, his task force of business leaders and education experts concluded, will yield better results than focusing on those already in the system and failing.

Others believe San Antonio can’t afford to wait for the next generation. Transformation needs to happen now.

Rackspace Chairman Graham Weston
Graham Weston

Graham Weston, chairman of Rackspace and one of Castro’s SA2020 tri-chairs, is the most ambitious business leader and philanthropist working on downtown transformation. After spending two years considering different approaches and listening to other change agents seeking his financial backing, Weston believes the answer lies in placemaking — making downtown more livable. He has a lot of allies, found everywhere from the Pearl in midtown to the Blue Star in Southtown. A more sensible strategy, Weston believes, is to devise ways to slow the outflow of San Antonio’s college graduates to other cities, while giving college graduates from elsewhere more reasons to move here.

Talk to teachers and school principals and something else surfaces as a major impediment to transforming the central city: Dysfunctional school boards.

Dr. John Folks
Dr. John Folks

“If you ask anyone inside the schools in certain districts to name the single biggest hindrance to improving our schools, they won’t say it’s a lack of money or staff, although those things matter,” said Dr. John Folks, the recently retired and much-lauded superintendent of the Northside Independent School District. “It’s school boards and the low quality of many of the people serving on those boards, individuals whose primary interests are not the students.”

Folks made that comment a few months ago at a breakfast gathering of school superintendents hosted at Southtown’s Liberty Bar by Communities in Schools. You can walk to the Liberty Bar from the central offices of the San Antonio Independent School District, but Superintendent Robert Durón was not there. By then he was planning his departure, one hastened by SAISD Board President Ed Garza, who sought election a few years earlier as a trustee because of his opposition to Durón.

Dysfunctional school boards and superintendent turnover in the San Antonio, Harlandale, and South San districts continue to frustrate inner city advocates and those hoping to see improved schools become part of the package attracting people to live and work in downtown San Antonio and its many affordable and livable neighborhoods.

College-educated parents with children remain the big hole in the downtown donut. Placemaking is certainly the fastest way to attract young professionals and affluent empty nesters to the center city. Castro’s long-range investment in pre-K children offers a promise that won’t be measurable for years to come. School boards that put students ahead of politics can set the stage for improvement almost overnight. Other inner city school districts elsewhere have demonstrated that leadership, as opposed to money, can help create schools that produce more college-ready graduates and reduce drop-out rates. On a small scale, the best charter schools prove it year after year.

Improve our schools, and we will see families added to the downtown mix of young professionals and empty nesters.

SAISD board president Ed Garza
Ed Garza

That thrusts Ed Garza into an incredibly important position as school board president of the biggest inner city district. Credible people believe the former mayor can rise to the occasion and demonstrate a level of leadership and accomplishment that eluded him at City Hall as a councilman and mayor. Many others lack faith in the Jefferson High School graduate.

Garza’s key challenge is to lead a divided board in its search for a qualified new superintendent–not an easy task given that the board couldn’t even agree on a search firm. Even if his fellow trustees do show more professionalism and competency under Garza, there is no guarantee that any qualified candidates will be interested in taking the job. The best candidates will steer clear of such a high risk, low yield scenario.

Garza and his fellow trustees have undergone a series of team building and governance training sessions that, Garza and others say,  have built new levels of trust among trustees, and a better understanding of how they should conduct themselves at board meetings. That training came in the wake of Garza’s push to use bond monies to recast Alamo Stadium as home venue for a reported Spurs-owned professional soccer team.

Garza isn’t the only one who would like to see professional soccer in San Antonio, but a district unable to build enough permanent classrooms to house its own students shouldn’t be spending money on a professional sports play. But that’s exactly what Garza seemed to be doing, even as he and others said otherwise to an outraged parents and taxpayers.

I’ve spent hours speaking with Garza and others on and around the board, and there is a consensus that Garza understands he handled the matter badly. How he handles the recruitment and hiring of the next superintendent is his last best chance to prove himself a leader in San Antonio. Garza told me two months ago that he was aware of the gravity of the moment, and was certain the board would identify and hire a qualified superintendent in time for the new school year.

More recently, he has reversed course and indicated the board will rely on acting superintendent Sylvester Perez, probably for the rest of 2012. Both Garza and Perez have said he is not a candidate, but that, too, could change as time goes by. Perez was runner-up several years ago for the same job; settling for him now as the next superintendent is not in the district’s interest.

Unfortunately, school board politics have led many families attracted to downtown life to stay put in the suburbs because they believe there aren’t good schools downtown. That’s wrong. There are good schools in the district, and I’ll focus on them in a coming article. But district leadership sets the tone for what outsiders think about the schools.

Teachers and parents working hard to build good inner city schools will remain in the shadows as long as school boards and superintendents continue to clash. That’s why Ed Garza at this particular juncture in San Antonio history, when other civic, business and cultural leaders are accomplishing so much in terms of urban transformation, needs to rise to the occasion.

Earlier stories about the Brainpower Initiative on The Rivard Report:

Mayor Castro’s Bid to Inspire a City

The Push to Fund Early Childhood Development

Fixing Public Schools Takes a City

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.

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.