Students participate in The Hour of Code popup classroom as team member Andrew McCurdy supervises. Photo by Scott Ball.
Students participate in The Hour of Code popup classroom as team member Andrew McCurdy supervises during STEM Week in 2015. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Mayor Ivy Taylor’s signature comprehensive planning initiative, SA Tomorrow, could become a transformative action plan by the time it is completed next year if elected officials summon the political strength to do two things: Stop incentivizing sprawl and dramatically increase incentives for urban core and downtown development.

Such a dramatic shift in San Antonio’s tectonic plates would herald a new era, one even more ambitious than former Mayor Julían Castro’s Decade of Downtown. Such a visible pivot would generate considerable positive media and attention outside the city, something San Antonio’s recent deal with GM Financial for back office jobs here will not do.

More importantly, it would align all other initiatives with the goal of slowing sprawl and speeding up development of a national-class downtown. That would include the priorities set for the 2017 City Bond, and it might even generate enough public interest and pressure to grow the bond’s current anticipated size from $750 million to something closer to $1 billion.

Such a move might risk the City’s AAA Bond rating, but the increased interest payments that would come with a slight downgrade would be dwarfed by the economic activity sparked by an extra $250 million in inner city infrastructure investment.

A city and its leadership so hyper focused on such a major downtown initiative inevitably would turn its attention to the state of public schools and the role that school districts and higher education can play in building a better city or acting as a drag on progress.

Right now public education remains an Achilles’ heel for San Antonio, but the initial success of Pre-K 4 SA, the significant growth and improvement at UTSA and the Alamo Colleges over the last decade, and the arrival of an ambitious and visionary superintendent to head the San Antonio Independent School District, are all factors that make profound change possible if the political will and the financial resources can be mustered.

Cynics might snicker at the notion that San Antonio’s inner city public schools can be dramatically improved under Martinez, but there is only one 2015 National Blue Ribbon School in Bexar County recognized by the Department of Education and that is SAISD’s Young Women’s Leadership Academy.

Teacher Nina Slote shapes young scientific minds at Young Women's Leadership Academy. Photo by Bekah McNeel.
Teacher Nina Slote shapes young scientific minds at Young Women’s Leadership Academy. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

The district also has a good story to tell about its other in-district charter school and magnet schools. While Martinez is challenging every principal at every campus to elevate education outcomes, what SAISD most obviously lacks is a destination high school, a Bronx High School of Science, a Boston Latin School, or a Michael DeBakey High School for Health Professionals in the Houston ISD. All three of those nationally ranked inner city campuses serve large, mostly minority student bodies.

Who would pay for such a high school here? It’s in our shared interests for all of us to pay. New approaches to community investment in education would have to occur, and that won’t be easy, but it did happen with Pre-K 4 SA, and if elected officials will stress that the health and vitality of downtown is key to prospects for the entire city, such investment will be an easier sell.

Bexar County used tax dollars to pay for $85 million of the $111 million in recent upgrades to the AT&T Arena, and there was hardly a peep of protest, even though the upgrades benefitted primarily the team and its season ticket holders. No one pretends such investment generates a significant return on investment or spurs other economic activity. The only explanation is that the Spurs unite people in San Antonio in a way that perhaps only the military can match. We did it because it was feasible.

If public officials can find that kind of money to invest in a 13-year-old sports arena, surely they can navigate the legalities and politics of joining with the City and other tax-supported bodies to declare an all-out push to elevate our public schools and build a high performance high school downtown.

Downtown San Antonio as seen from UTSA's downtown campus. Photo courtesy of UTSA.
Downtown San Antonio as seen from UTSA’s downtown campus. Photo courtesy of UTSA.

The same kind of push needs to occur to elevate UTSA to Tier One status. A major city without a Tier One public university is not a first tier city. This observation takes away nothing from what the city’s four private universities contribute to society, but the overwhelming size of UTSA versus the private schools make it an imperative to make it a destination university.

Even if San Antonio makes a super-human push to improve its schools, it still will have to redefine economic development. The City Council has to find ways to invest more aggressively in infrastructure to make the city a better place to live and work.

By the City staff’s own reckoning, we have a $1.1 billion deficit in sidewalk construction and maintenance. As badly maintained as the inner city’s sidewalks are, most of that deficit stems from the number of neighborhoods with streets where there are no sidewalks.

The deficit for street repair and maintenance is even higher at $1.7 billion.

There you have 2.7 billion reasons why every arriving company should pay its fair share of taxes. Every tax break means the rest of us are paying a disproportionately higher tax bill. And when we incentivize companies that want to build in the suburbs rather than the core city, it means the rest of us are paying higher taxes to support sprawl. Money that should be invested in the city is instead spent supporting distant new development and all its attendant costs.

The demand for project inclusion in the 2017 City Bond will probably be five times the stated $750 million target. One reason we cannot meet all our city’s basic needs now is that our tax base is too small to cover all the streets, sidewalks and other pubic works projects in our general operating budget. We simply do not have the bond capacity to make up for that and match the ever-accumulating needs.

That’s another reason not to spread the money over a city artificially expanded by new annexation. We all know the city is going to grow by one million people by 2040 if projections hold.  Are we simply going to map future sprawl, or are we going to act on that information and take control of our own destiny?

All economic development strategies should include investment in education outcomes. We can’t import all the educated workers we need. We have to grow them, and after we do, we have give them a livable city, a compelling reason to stay here.

Last week’s announcement that the Department of Housing & Urban Development, led by Secretary Julián Castro, will provide the San Antonio Housing Authority with $7 million over the next four years to enroll public housing project residents in job training programs is a noble endeavor. Unfortunately, the history of such federal job training programs is not good. Individuals who lack a high school diploma and the basic math and literacy skills that are supposed to come along with that achievement, show a very low return on such investment.

It will take 16-20 years to show dramatic results if we start now with our pre-K population and give the next generation of San Antonians tye education options and support not available to the generations who have come before them. Everyone in San Antonio should see a good education as a human right, like the right to ample food and good nutrition.

When we start to see it that way, and show a willingness to make education spending a priority, San Antonio will become a different city, one that doesn’t have to pay companies to bring hourly wage jobs here. We will be too busy creating better social and economic opportunities for our population. Companies will then want to move here or expand here for all the right reasons.

*Top image: Students participate in The Hour of Code pop-up classroom as team member Andrew McCurdy supervises during STEM Week in San Antonio, Nov. 17, 2015.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.