The Texas Education Agency could replace Harlandale Independent School District trustees with a board of managers. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

For more than a year, the Texas Education Agency has investigated allegations involving  issues in governance, contract procurement, and nepotism in Harlandale Independent School District.

In mid-November, the agency submitted a preliminary report with initial findings to the district. The report, which was obtained by the Rivard Report, recommends TEA lower the accreditation of Harlandale ISD, install a conservator to help oversee the district’s governance, and appoint a board of managers in place of the elected board of trustees.

After districts receive preliminary special accreditation investigation reports, they have the opportunity to respond by requesting an informal review. These reviews allow districts to provide additional information to the TEA before a final report is issued. No recommendations are definite until a final report is issued.

Harlandale received an extension to request an informal review and has until 5 p.m. Dec. 21 to do so. A TEA spokeswoman said the timeline is flexible depending on when an informal review can be scheduled and what kinds of questions the TEA has for the district.

A final report could be released later in January, the spokeswoman estimated.

If the state ultimately makes the decision to appoint a board of managers, Harlandale ISD would be the third San Antonio district in recent years to have the powers of its elected board of trustees suspended in favor of state-appointed managers.

Texas’ Commissioner of Education Mike Morath previously appointed boards of managers in both Edgewood and Southside ISDs because of governance issues.

The TEA report also states some of the investigation’s findings may constitute criminal violations related to contract procurement and the Open Meetings Act. The TEA Special Investigations Unit recommends referral of its findings to appropriate State and local agencies.

Below are some of the findings in the 15-page report:

  • Superintendent Rey Madrigal entered into four agreements and made payments to Terracon Consultants without board approval in violation of both district policy and the Texas Education Code.
  • Trustees acted individually on behalf of the board, exceeding their scope of authority and violating elements of the Texas Education Code.
  • Trustees used group text messaging to hold meetings and deliberate district business without making meetings open to the public a violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act.

The investigative unit concluded that “significant dysfunction exists among Board of Trustees in the form of distrust, in-fighting, and bullying, biased bid ranking, and alliances.” The majority of division on the board came from two main issues: pier repairs to support a structure at Gillette Elementary School and retaining and overpayment to outside contractor Jasmine Engineering, according to the TEA report.

The report also states the investigation revealed an improper dependency relationship between certain trustees and an outside contractor “for possible exchange of monies, gifts, meals, and other in-kind donations.”

The TEA concludes its report by recommending sanctions and corrective action for the district. Suggested corrective action includes recommendations that Harlandale adopt new policies and procedures to ensure compliance with State law, provide a list to TEA of all staff charged with overseeing these policies, and pay for an external forensic audit related to contracts and procurement.

Recommended sanctions include lowering Harlandale’s accreditation, installing a conservator, appointing a board of managers, and holding a public hearing on the district’s insufficient performance.

“The report is preliminary in nature and not final,” Harlandale spokesperson Natalie Bobadilla said in late November after the board received the report. “At this time, any comment would be premature. The district may respond as appropriate after a final report is received.”

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.