SAISD Police Chief Jose Curiel
SAISD Police Chief Jose Curiel Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Scores of students, educators, civil rights organizations, and community partners called on San Antonio Independent School District’s board to withdraw funding from the district’s police force Monday night at the same meeting where trustees passed a balanced budget for the 2020-21 school year.

The night began with about 75 people urging trustees to use funding for the district’s police force on mental health services instead.

SAISD, a 48,000-student district, employs 135 school counselors, 34 licensed specialists in school psychology, 34 social workers, and 60 police officers, an SAISD spokeswoman previously said. During 2019-20, the district devoted $6.4 million to funding SAISD’s police department, according to a budget document.

“I strongly urge SAISD to divest from school policing and invest in restorative practices that will support students and their experiences,” several current and former SAISD students wrote. “In a district that is predominantly black and brown, the board needs to acknowledge that routine policing is harmful and cops should not be involved in any form of discipline as it perpetuates the criminalization of students of color.”

Four social justice organizations including Texas Appleseed and Disability Rights Texas made a similar request in early June, sending a letter to district trustees and administrators. The letter echoed national calls to “defund the police” and asked the board to divert funds from the district’s police department to more mental health positions.

Immediately after the public comment portion of the budget hearing, Board President Patti Radle addressed the comments, saying she felt the district had examined school discipline policies when it debated the student code of conduct and that the district was on the right path forward. She acknowledged that improvement was still needed, however.

“If you have been listening to this board for years, you’ve heard us speak up about the need for social workers and counselors, and we have made good progress in that area,” Radle said. “I don’t think we’re going to stop talking about it because this board is dedicated to that kind of attention to our students [and] issues related to mental health

Trustees later approved a 2020-21 budget without adjusting the amount allocated for the district’s police department. The board voted unanimously to pass a $498 million general fund budget.

Texas school districts are funded based on enrollment. If SAISD’s enrollment remains stable, the district expects no deficit. As of June 17, SAISD had registered 83 percent of its projected enrollment of 48,547 students for school next year.

Prior to the vote, Trustee Ed Garza advocated for listening to campuses when determining police presence. He also commended district Police Chief Jose “Joe” Curiel for his vision for the police department.

“I just want all the speakers to know we have one of the best chiefs, I believe, in the country,” Garza said. “If there are school campuses that feel it is not necessary, then let’s listen to the campuses. If there are others that feel they need a stronger presence for whatever reason, I kind of want to lean in that same direction.”

Superintendent Pedro Martinez agreed with Garza’s assessment of Curiel, heaping further praise onto the police chief. He also raised a point about what would happen if SAISD eliminated its police department: Campuses would have to call officers at the San Antonio Police Department should the need arise.

“The reality is do we want the city police to be the one answering all the phone calls when we have crime across our communities?” Martinez asked rhetorically.

Trustee Alicia Perry said she is not for defunding the police but would like to see a balance or switch in the amount spent on social services and the district’s police department. The budget numbers she referenced showed social services received less district funding, although several SAISD officials pointed out the district works with community organizations to fund additional social services.

Trustee Christina Martinez said she would hope that any investment in social-emotional learning would show a decrease in suspensions and expulsions.

In 2018-19, 2,593 students received in-school suspensions and 3,700 received out-of-school suspensions, according to discipline reports posted on the Texas Education Agency’s website. A total of 5,899 out-of-school suspensions were given to Hispanic or Latino students, 1,034 to African American or black students, 133 to white students, and 37 to students of two or more races.

A total of 4,041 in-school-suspensions were given to Hispanic or Latino students, 267 to African American or black students, 81 to white students, and 19 to students of two or more races. One student can receive multiple suspensions.

Before the budget approval vote, trustees probed SAISD officials on several elements of the budget outside of the investment in the police force.

Perry asked the district to examine how many black contractors and vendors SAISD worked with.

Trustee Martinez said she would support the budget, but had two contingent conditions: a re-examination of attendance boundaries to ensure schools are not over-enrolled, while other campuses have room to spare, and a pilot program that would produce a student-based budget showing how much money was being spent per student on campuses.

Superintendent Martinez committed to engaging in the discussions requested by Perry and Martinez in the coming school year.

Trustee Steve Lecholop asked district officials to begin the budgeting process earlier next school year and to offer more town hall meetings for the community to learn about the process. He also emphasized that the budget was a living document and that trustees could shift funding priorities throughout the coming school year if needed.

“This isn’t our first, last, and only opportunity to direct allocation of dollars as we learn, as we move forward, as we adjust to whatever conditions are on the ground at the time,” Lecholop said.

At previous budget meetings throughout May and June, school district staff outlined how the budget might be impacted by the coronavirus economic downturn. SAISD leaders expressed confidence that the 2020-21 budget would feel little impact because of State promises to maintain funding dependent on enrollment.

Still, Garza expressed concern over the stability of the 2020-21 budget given the conversation around looming funding cuts in future legislative sessions. He questioned why there wasn’t more discussion over how to preempt budgetary challenges of the future.

Superintendent Martinez told his board the State promised it would use federal funding from the CARES Act to keep districts “whole” for the 2019-20 school year and 2020-21 year with student numbers remaining stable.

SAISD Chief Financial Officer Larry Garza previously told the board that SAISD was eligible for $21.2 million in CARES Act funding. That money will be used to cover gaps in State funding, so the net impact on SAISD’s budget will be zero, Garza said.

As of early June, the district projected enrollment would remain relatively flat. If the number of students enrolled this fall matched the number from last fall, the district would not have to grapple with a deficit, SAISD officials said.

“We have stability for funding for next year,” the superintendent said on June 3. “What we don’t know, of course, is funding for the next biennium.”

The superintendent conceded that SAISD will face unexpected costs. He suggested more money could be needed for expanded cleaning protocol or additional staff hours necessary to catch students up from months spent learning from home. However, it is hard to tell what those expenditures will look like at this point in time, Martinez said.

Trustees also approved a changed school calendar Monday night, adding in three intersession weeks that will give SAISD flexibility should campuses or the district need to close because of a flare-up in coronavirus cases. Additional breaks are added from Nov. 16 to 20, Jan. 4 to 8, and March 15 to 19. The school year will start Aug. 10 and end June 21.

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.