Patrol officer Mario Hinijosa speaks his opinion to the South San Antonio Independent School District board.
Mario Hinijosa, a patrol officer with South San Antonio Independent School District, speaks to the school board. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

As trustees of the South San Antonio Independent School District met Wednesday night to address a $6.4 million budget deficit, food service workers and school police officers showed up to protest potential budget and staffing cuts.

Workers in the district’s child nutrition department – who purchase, prepare, and serve meals to students – rallied to speak out against potential outsourcing of their department’s services, while police officers pushed back against a possible loss of 14 positions. And at the last minute, Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra temporarily pulled from consideration a property tax increase – one similar to those adopted by other area school districts – that could, if ratified and passed, ameliorate budget shortfalls.

Angela Rodriguez, an inventory and procurement specialist in the child nutrition department, said she learned last Friday that the district may switch to outside contractors to do her department’s work. South San Chief Finance Officer JC Zamora had informed her department’s 120 members that the district was considering outsourcing the work to trim administrative costs and offer more diverse menu options for students.

Members of her department responded by protesting outside the board room on Wednesday, carrying signs that read, “Keep Big Corporations Out of South San.”

“If the school board wants a more diverse menu, we can do it,” Rodriguez said. “If someone complains, someone should communicate with the director or assistant director so we can address it, because we can’t fix something that we don’t know about.”

Saavedra said that while the district is examining whether outsourcing could save money, no jobs are at risk.

“The fact that we are looking at it does not put your job at risk at all,” he said. “Even if the board approved it, it still would not cost you your job.”

Saavedra said the district would likely request bids for the child nutrition department work in June, but would make a final decision later. If the district does contract with an external group to run food services, the relationship between the district and its current child nutrition department workers could change.

For example, the outside company could maintain all current staff as district employees or it could hire the current staff as its own employees, a move that would eliminate workers’ school district benefits. Or it could create a hybrid model.

District police officers also implored South San trustees to maintain their department’s current staffing levels.

According to a budget proposal shown Wednesday night, the district is considering eliminating 14 officers’ positions should budget conditions remain the same. Thirteen of those positions would come from the district’s department of safety. One of the district’s 13 campuses also would lose an officer’s position.

“When our district isn’t occupied with officers, things happen, criminals can do things,” Dwight Middle School police officer Carlos Zamora told the board. “Without us, [or by] limiting us, you are going to cause problems.”

Saavedra said he was considering efficiencies such as combining off-hour dispatcher services with other small school districts nearby.

Tax rate increase

The need for staff cuts could be slightly altered should the district call for a tax rate increase. However, Saavedra pulled from Wednesday night’s agenda an item on calling a tax ratification election while he has further discussions with the district’s legal team, he said. He said the matter likely will come up again for a vote at the next board meeting in June.

Trustees have discussed calling for a tax ratification election to increase the property tax rate by 13 cents per $100 of property valuation, bringing in more revenue to cover the budget gaps.

All districts surrounding South San – San Antonio, Harlandale, Somerset, Southwest, Southside, and Edgewood ISDs – have already increased their tax rates, said JC Zamora, the district’s finance officer.

The current tax rate has two components: a maintenance and operations (M&O) rate of $1.04 that funds the district’s general operations, and an interest and sinking (I&S) rate of 41 cents that pays for debt service. On property tax bills, district residents see a combined rate of $1.45 per $100 of property valuation.

With a 13-cent increase, the overall tax rate would rise to $1.58 and result in an estimated $6.3 million in additional revenue.

The majority of this revenue would go to covering the district’s deficit, although Zamora indicated the district also is willing to pull $1 million from the district’s fund balance, which is similar to a savings account. The extra income left over from the tax increase would be considered a surplus, to be used to mitigate potential deficits in future years.

Even with the passage of a tax rate increase, though, some jobs could still be at risk. In the last four years, enrollment has declined sharply, from 10,014 to 8,600, the projection for 2018-19. This reduces state funding, which is tied to enrollment numbers, and the need for personnel.

Zamora showed trustees what the district’s budget would look like with and without the passage of a 13-cent tax rate increase. Not all of the proposed cuts would be erased – some of the money would contribute to a surplus that the district could carry forward in future years, he said.

The district has given some autonomy to individual campuses to identify where cuts would be best made. Zamora said he asked elementary campuses to identify $55,000 in possible cutbacks, and middle school campuses to identify roughly $70,000 worth.

Based on plans submitted by principals, staff members could be at risk of losing jobs at the district’s 12 elementary and middle school campuses, where enrollment is down. Without a passage of a tax rate increase, 19 classroom teachers, five music teachers, two counselors, one librarian, two assistant principals, and four instructional aides could lose their jobs.

Throughout the meeting, trustees commented on the potential tax rate increase. Trustee Luis Rodriguez said the decision was simple.

“This is about the kids – bottom line, that is the whole thing,” he said, recalling that the board would likely have to cut programs if they continued to operate with a deficit. “Are we going to deprive [students] of [programs]? It is your call, it is not our call.”

Trustee Edward Mungia said that if the board called for a tax ratification election and if the community rejected the increase, it would be a “mandate from the community to make those reductions happen.”

Saavedra and other trustees invited the community to meet with them to share ideas about how to address the district’s financial woes.

“If there is a way to achieve [not making cuts] without passing the TRE … I would like to know what that is,” Mungia said.

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.