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Three years ago, State education officials installed a conservator in South San Antonio Independent School District after an investigation revealed financial mismanagement and a troubled working relationship between the board of trustees and district staff.
It’s been barely a year since the Texas Education Agency (TEA) decided to pull its overseer out of South San because of renewed confidence in the district’s governance, but in recent months familiar issues have resurfaced.
The district of almost 9,000 students in South San Antonio is led by an almost entirely new group: four new trustees, a new superintendent, and a new school board president. But a debate over reopening three shuttered campuses has district onlookers questioning once again how the board is working with district staff and whether reopening the schools makes financial sense.
Board meetings are tense, with new Superintendent Alexandro Flores relegated to a table apart from trustees, unlike at other local school districts, where the district’s top executive sits alongside board members. At a recent board meeting, one trustee questioned whether it was necessary to listen to the superintendent’s recommendation on the hiring of legal, financial, and auditing services that serve the district. Flores, meanwhile, appeared unfamiliar with some items on the agenda that he had not consulted on.
“For [Flores] not to know what things were going to be placed on the agenda is just not good practice – I think you would be hard-pressed to find another school district where the superintendent does not know what is on the agenda at the time of the board meeting,” said Edward Mungia, who was appointed to South San’s board in January 2018 but failed to win election the following November.
The TEA said it recently received a complaint related to the district that is under review but would not provide further details. A TEA spokeswoman said a complaint can sometimes lead to an investigation.
One of the first actions a new four-trustee majority took was to push for the reopening by next school year of three closed campuses over the reservations of the superintendent, who wanted more time to research the matter.
It is unclear if the district’s enrollment would support the plan to reopen the campuses. Athens Elementary and Kazen Middle School, two schools included in the proposal, were closed less than two years ago because of enrollment declines. The district’s enrollment dipped again this year by about 200 students. There has been no recent study on enrollment trends that would indicate where growth would occur in the district, but some board members maintained opening the campuses would right the wrong of closing them in the first place.
Despite uncertainty about the cost of reopening the campuses the board set a short timeline, pushing the district to plan for the schools’ reopening by next fall. Flores estimates that a typical campus opening takes between 18 and 24 months.
The superintendent has not taken an official position on reopening the schools, and the board hasn’t taken a binding vote on the matter. There’s no official date set to take such a vote, but the budget committee, tasked with hammering out financial details, hopes to revisit it after spring break.
Flores declined to comment on whether he is ready to make a recommendation or whether he has made progress working with board members on the proposal.
In 2013, Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4), a South San alumnus, sent a letter to the TEA asking the agency to investigate board infighting and poor financial decisions. Saldaña told the Rivard Report in January that the recent debate into reopening schools might pique TEA’s interest again because of the plan’s potential cost.
“It might be playing a rerun of a movie we’ve already seen,” Saldaña said in January after the proposal to reopen the campuses first surfaced.
With current enrollment trends, budget constraints, and uncertain community support for reopening the schools, the question remains: Does it make sense for South San to reopen the three schools by next year?
In the past five years, enrollment in South San has declined. In 2013-14, the district enrolled a little more than 10,000 students. The latest projection, based on estimates from three years ago, shows South San with an enrollment of about 8,300 students next year.
During a Feb. 13 meeting, Flores presented enrollment projections for Athens, Kazen, and West Campus High School if the schools were to reopen this year. Those projections showed the schools would reopen with fewer students than were enrolled the year they closed. West Campus closed in 2007.
Athens, which closed with 423 students, is estimated to reopen with 311, and the enrollment of two other elementaries, Price and Carrillo, is expected to decline as a result. Kazen closed with 480 students and is projected to reopen with 462, also triggering a decline in the enrollments of Zamora and Shepard middle schools.
Former Northside ISD Superintendent John Folks, who oversaw the opening of almost 40 schools during his decade-long tenure leading San Antonio’s largest district and who lectures in UTSA’s superintendent preparation program, said the process to open a campus doesn’t normally work this way.
“Generally, you make enrollment projections, and then you look at how many classrooms you are going to need for that enrollment, and then you build a school based on your projected enrollment,” Folks said. “If [a district is] not projecting a growth in enrollment … then I would probably accommodate the students at the school they are going to if those schools are not overcrowded.”
While Folks has not overseen the reopening of an already existing campus, he said the need for space to accommodate additional students is normally the driving force behind opening schools.
Juan Jasso, former superintendent of Southside ISD and current director of superintendent studies at Texas A&M-San Antonio, agreed with Folks’ assessment that facility planning should be driven by demand.
During a February budget meeting, board President Connie Prado questioned why low enrollment and having schools operate under capacity should be a reason to close them.
“The administration back then, their justification back then, was low enrollment and capacity,” Prado said of the reason to close the schools. “None of our campuses, no elementary, no middle school, not even our high school has ever reached capacity.”
However, in neighboring San Antonio ISD, many schools come close to or exceed full capacity, including Brackenridge, Edison, Highlands, and Jefferson high schools and Harris, Longfellow, Rhodes, and Whittier middle schools.
Flores’ projections show that if West Campus High School were to reopen it would have just 195 students in its initial freshman class. The district’s sole high school, South San High, enrolled about 2,600 students last year.
Some in South San ISD have blamed charter schools, including the addition of two new IDEA campuses in recent years, for declining enrollment. In 2017-18, IDEA enrolled 645 students living in South San boundaries. That school year, more than 1,300 students living in district boundaries chose to enroll in other public school districts or charter schools.
Trustees who support reopening the new campuses insist that doing so will be a show of good faith to draw students back to South San. Prado routinely cites potential housing starts that bring the promise for new families into district boundaries.
“People are coming to South San and I think we need to be cognizant of the developers,” Prado said at a January board meeting. “There are homes being built constantly all over our district.”
While there were zero housing starts within South San’s boundaries in 2017, there were 61 in 2018 and at least another 50 or 60 coming this year, said Jack Inselmann, regional director of Metrostudy, which tracks housing developments.
The number of “future lots” in South San – plats submitted to a municipality but not developed – has increased by about 300 over the last 18 months, Inselmann said.
The new areas of planned development are in an area near Old Pearsall Road and Southwest Military Drive and another near South Zarzamora Street and Gillette Boulevard. These locations are close to Kazen and West Campus.
Now the number of future lots with plans for development sits at around 405, but there is no clear timeline for when they might be developed.
Does it make financial sense?
At this time last year, the district had projected it would face close to a $7 million deficit because of declining enrollment.
Based on 2018-19 enrollment data, the district projects it will collect about $73.6 million in revenue this school year. With its approved budget of $72.5 million, South San could have a surplus of $1.1 million, without reopening the three campuses.
In January, before the start of budget talks for 2019-20, Prado and the newly elected trustees passed a resolution to reopen Athens, Kazen, and West Campus High School and asked district staff to put together a cost estimate. A month later, staff members presented a plan that outlined startup costs, reoccurring costs, and other needs that could be delayed.
The superintendent estimated startup costs and recurring costs for all three campuses at about $13 million with additional needs between $9 million and $15 million. The estimated costs for all three campuses ranged from $23 million to $29 million.
Trustee Gilbert Rodriguez, who chairs the newly formed budget committee, submitted his own estimate for converting the buildings back to operational campuses: just under $9 million. His estimate shifts some renovation costs to a future bond, deducts costs related to personnel who may already be employed with the district and included in an existing budget, and deducts costs for transportation.
Community organizers have questioned how much neighborhood support there is for reopening the schools. While a vocal group of supporters continues to attend school board meetings and advocate for the reopening of the schools, many in the communities surrounding at least one of the vacant campuses seemed not to know the details of any developing plan.
The board does not currently have plans to hold a community input meeting on the topic, trustees Elda Flores and Louis Ybarra said.
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After Saldaña (D4) floated a proposal in December to turn Kazen Middle School into a community center with City funds and the school board did not respond to the idea, community organizer Mayra Juárez-Denis started going door-to-door in the area around Kazen to collect residents’ feedback on what to do with the vacant campus – reopen it as a school or turn it into a community center.
Juárez-Denis, whose nonpartisan organization SA Rise advocates for educational equity and says it has no stake in the matter, found that most nearby residents were unaware of the proposal to reopen the school and were ambivalent about the choice between a school and a community center. Most seemed interested in seeing something done with the vacant property, but some questioned whether there were enough young people in the surrounding neighborhoods to support the school, she said.
Saldaña said last week that he had heard from several board members who wanted to place the community center proposal on a future agenda for a vote. At Wednesday night’s board meeting, Ybarra said he asked to place Saldaña’s community center proposal on the meeting’s agenda but was denied.
Prado told the Rivard Report she turned down the request, saying the matter had already been discussed and that facilities are not related to student outcomes and, therefore, are not supposed to be placed on an agenda.
As board members prepare to discuss the schools reopening further, Mungia, the former board appointee, hopes trustees will listen to the superintendent’s recommendation one way or the other.
“[Superintendent] Flores came in [on] a unanimous vote, including three board members that are on the board right now,” Mungia said. “They have to take him at his word, and I think he honestly wants to enact the vision of the school board, whatever it happens to be. … The sense of urgency to get things done before anyone has a chance to answer all questions is not very democratic.”