SAISD will use $78.4 million in federal funds to expand students' access to mental health care and hire more teachers. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The San Antonio Independent School District board of trustees unanimously adopted a $487.5 million budget Monday for the upcoming school year and a separate plan to spend about $78.4 million in federal coronavirus relief funds. District 3 trustee Leticia Ozuna was absent.

Parents, teachers, students, and other SAISD community members filled the boardroom Monday to lambast the district for not garnering “authentic” and “meaningful” feedback on its plan to spend the millions in federal relief funds, or Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds. They also called for SAISD to create a stakeholder committee that would decide how to use federal dollars.

SAISD campuses held meetings with stakeholders from May 24 to June 4 to get feedback on how the district should use federal funds in its recovery plan, while district officials sought input from its student, parent, and teacher advisory committees.

Parents and teachers said the meetings weren’t widely advertised or were held at inconvenient times. Most speakers at the meeting were affiliated with the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel or MindShiftED, a parent advocacy nonprofit.

Alliance President Alejandra Lopez told the board that people who attended the community stakeholder meetings were only asked for feedback on existing ideas the district had on how to allocate the federal funds, not to provide their own ideas. The meetings also were held after the board voted to approve certain budget initiatives, such as an increase in teacher and staff compensation.

“Never before has our community seen such a large amount of money flood into our public schools. This investment is an opportunity for meaningful and long-term structural transformation in SAISD,” she said. “While we welcome the increased investment in staff compensation and social emotional learning, the process of identifying priorities should have involved much larger constituencies.”

District 5 trustee Patti Radle, who was board president until the end of Monday’s meeting, said SAISD could and will get better at reaching more families and staff members but that the district did not have much time to seek out feedback and adopt a budget in June when the federal relief funds were “held hostage” by the state until late April.

Superintendent Pedro Martinez said the allocation of the federal funds was driven by schools, not him or the board. He said the district will bring regular reports back to the board on how the dollars are being used at campuses so trustees can monitor the schools’ needs and changes how the funds are spent based on those reports.

“This has to be a collective effort across the entire community,” he said. “It isn’t myself making a decision; it isn’t yourself making individual decisions. It really is driven by the schools.”

Other board members had questions on how the federal funds would be spent and how the district would evaluate if its recovery plan is working. District 7 trustee Ed Garza asked whether the board was approving how SAISD would spend the full $276.6 million in federal funds the district expects to receive. Martinez said the board was only approving $78.4 million in expenditures for the upcoming school year and the priorities on how to use the remaining dollars over the next three years.

District 2 trustee and new board vice president Alicia Sebastian-Perry said she felt uncomfortable about the process because she still has many questions and she wants to make sure the district is a good steward of the funds by spending them equitably across campuses. District 1 trustee Sarah Sorensen echoed her point and said the board needs to know how each campus budget works to be able to provide adequate oversight of the federal dollars. Martinez said the district would break down each campus budget for the board next school year so trustees can see how much each school got in federal dollars.

District 6 trustee and new board president Christina Martinez asked the superintendent how SAISD would know if its investment in social and emotional resources would “pay off.” The superintendent said the board and he would learn together but that resources could be shifted as needed to see what works throughout the next three school years.

SAISD will use the $78.4 million in federal funds for the 2021-22 school year to expand student access to social workers and other mental health resources, add school days, and hire more teachers.

To address social and emotional needs, the district will spend $9.3 million of the $78.4 million creating teams at each comprehensive high school that will include two social workers, two family engagement specialists, four academic deans, a board-certified behavioral analyst, a behavior specialist, and a special education resource teacher. SAISD also will add 39 social workers to schools through its partnerships with Communities in Schools, a nonprofit that connects students with adult mentors and community resources that will help them succeed academically. The district plans to hire 12 more licensed clinical social workers and certify more staff members in youth mental health first aid.

SAISD plans to use $22.1 million to extend the school year, which involves pay for staff who work the additional days and the costs of operating schools. Those funds also go toward teacher stipends.

The district will spend $23.6 million hiring more teachers for schools with higher recovery needs, expanding extracurricular programs, and adding special education resources. Of the $23.6 million, about $8.5 million will go toward hiring the new teachers and $3.1 million will go toward hiring 31 more guidance counselor and assistant principal positions.

Brooke Crum covered education for the San Antonio Report.