Olga M. Hernandez leaves the board room. Photo by Scott Ball.
Olga Hernandez leaves the SAISD board room. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

A jury found former longtime school board member Olga Hernandez not guilty Tuesday of taking bribes from an insurance contractor doing business with the San Antonio Independent School District, but that doesn’t mean she is innocent.

In the court of public opinion, where there are no skilled defense lawyers leading Hernandez through carefully rehearsed testimony or making persuasive closing arguments to the jury, another verdict is clear: Hernandez selfishly accepted thousands of dollars in cash gifts, travel, meals, and lodging in the gambling capitals of Las Vegas, Reno, and Shreveport, free Spurs playoff tickets, and even a $500 gift card to buy herself jewelry – all provided by individuals who benefited from lucrative insurance service contracts with the school district.

How would Hernandez explain her behavior were she to stand before the district’s 54,000 socioeconomically disadvantaged students and their families who can’t afford the price of a school lunch? Would any of those working-class mothers and fathers who want a good public education and a better life for their children believe all that money came from a “friend” of Hernandez who just happened to depend on her vote and her voice to secure district business?

It will be interesting to watch and see if Hernandez addresses the district at large to offer an accounting of her conduct as a trustee. This is an opportunity to expand on her courtroom testimony, a teachable moment unlike any found in the classroom.

From where I sit, Hernandez beat the federal bribery rap with a “stupid” defense: She simply didn’t know any better. She claimed she never realized that a friend showering gifts on her might be doing so because of her powerful position as a school board trustee who votes on tens of millions of dollars in contracts each year.

Hernandez can’t pretend such ignorance of longstanding written policies on bribery and accepting gifts issued by the Texas Association of School Boards and adopted by the district, policies that she violated.

“While the Board legal policies speak to the law, we also have the ability to develop additional local policies that reflect expected standards,” wrote Leslie Price, the district’s spokeswoman, in response to my query about the district’s written ethics policies. Price added, “I expect there will be more discussions related to this topic.” (Readers can review the policies themselves by following the links above.)

District Superintendent Pedro Martinez and Board President Patti Radle do not need the prospect of Hernandez pursuing a return to the school board as a distraction, so a public statement now affirming that Hernandez knowingly violated those policies and failed to disclose a contractor plying her with cash and casino vacations should close the door on Hernandez’s return.

Citizens are fed up with low-performing inner city school districts with a history of school board malfeasance. It’s a legacy that burdens SAISD, even as it now enjoys a refreshing period of reform, progressive management, and school board cohesion and professionalism. Edgewood, Harlandale, and South San Antonio ISDs, to name three, are burdened by school board machines, individual trustees, or failed superintendents that have caused a massive loss of faith in inner city public schools, especially when coupled with the dismal education results these districts report year in and year out.

There always has been a disconnect between poverty-stricken citizens and inner city school boards that stands in stark contrast to the city’s higher-performing districts, including the Northside, North East, and Alamo Heights ISDs, where there is far greater wealth and parental involvement, higher tax bases to support district budgets, and better education outcomes.

Few people vote in inner city school board elections, where a few hundred votes swing a single-member district. Yet trustees, once in place, wield outsized political power, controlling how hundreds of millions of dollars are spent in operating budgets and capital projects, and who wins and loses contracts.

It’s a system ripe for kickbacks, which are hard enough for federal investigators to uncover and prosecute, as we witnessed this week, and all but impossible for journalists to track. No wonder there were courtroom gasps when the jury’s verdicts of not guilty were read aloud by the presiding federal judge in Hernandez’s trial.

Board Trustee Olga Hernandez (center) folds her resignation letter after publicly reading her intentions.
Board Trustee Olga Hernandez (center) folds her resignation letter after publicly reading her statement. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Among the area’s low-performing inner city districts, SAISD has made significant strides in recent years. A more unified and purpose-driven school board recruited Martinez, a Mexican-born immigrant raised in Chicago who has delivered as a dynamic, visionary superintendent and has earned the support of the city’s business leaders.

District officials have opened a series of in-district charter schools that are delivering dramatically better education outcomes than most traditional campuses, particularly the large high schools, which continue to suffer significant dropout rates and only graduate a minority of college-ready students. The fact remains that most students entering inner city public schools will not earn a college degree and all that comes with it in life.

Even with a unified school board, strong leadership from Superintendent Martinez, and positive trend lines, San Antonio’s largest inner city school district does not need the distraction of a low-performing former trustee returning to the district. Public education is a big enough challenge for our most dedicated school leaders. There is no reason to return to the days of powerful trustees looking to do well by their friends.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.