This article has been updated.
Three San Antonio Independent School District trustees are facing challengers backed by the district’s largest teachers union in the May 1 school board election, representing a growing rift between the union and district leaders on how schools should be operated.
An additional candidate backed by the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel is seeking an open seat. If elected, the four candidates would constitute a majority on the seven-member board of trustees. That would give the union the ability to override recommendations made to the board by Superintendent Pedro Martinez, whom union leaders have criticized for bringing charter school operators into the district and prioritizing standardized testing. The incumbents point to progress SAISD has made under Martinez’ leadership since he was hired in 2015, during which the district’s state rating improved to a B.
Current school board members said they have never seen the Alliance organize a slate of candidates to contest every incumbent – in Districts 1, 4, and 7 – up for reelection.
“A line has been drawn in the sand to say to the voter, ‘Do you like the direction that the district is going or do you not?’” said District 7 Trustee Ed Garza, who has been on the board for 12 years and faces an opponent for the first time in eight years.
Garza, who served as San Antonio’s mayor from 2001 to 2005, remembers meeting monthly with the union’s head when he served as SAISD’s board president, but said those meetings don’t occur any more, reflecting increasing strain between the board and the Alliance.
“There just doesn’t seem to be that same chemistry or alignment with the vision of the district, and ultimately that’s what this election is going to come down to,” he said.
The Alliance is supporting the four campaigns, all aligned under the coalition platform The Schools That Our Students Deserve. In January, the Alliance’s political action committee reported $194,457 cash on hand, according to the PAC’s latest campaign finance report. In 2019, the Alliance backed two candidates facing incumbents, including a challenger to current board President Patti Radle, but neither were successful.
The Alliance platform calls for bringing families, students, staff, and community members to the decision-making table; giving staff better pay; and creating safer working conditions and a more inclusive environment for all, President Alejandra Lopez said.
“The contributions of thousands of school workers across the district are what allow us to contribute to candidates who will fight for the schools our students deserve,” she said. “This is a coalition of people who have these concerns, who really see what is happening right now within our district under the pandemic. They see a board that is not engaging in any kind of democratic spaces where people can come and engage and discuss, and they’re ready for a public school district that works hard to meet the needs of the community.”
Meanwhile, some of the incumbents have called the coalition candidates’ positions vague and unrealistic, including their desire to diminish the district’s focus on how well students perform on state-mandated standardized tests.
“We don’t make the rules. The state makes the rules,” Garza said. “Those are the rules that dictate ratings for schools, and those are the ratings that Realtors and the community promote and that parents review when they’re researching schools.”
In District 1, Trustee Steve Lecholop, a 39-year-old attorney, is seeking a third four-year term, facing Metro Health COVID-19 case investigator Sarah Sorensen, 43.
Lecholop said the current board is united in its focus on improving student achievement. Since the board hired Martinez, the district’s state accountability rating went from a C in 2018 to a B in 2019, and state Education Commissioner Mike Morath called SAISD the “fastest-improving district in the state,” Lecholop said.
“SAISD has made tremendous progress,” he said. “We know we have a lot of work left to do, but we’re incredibly proud of the progress we’ve made.”
Current board members helped build up neighborhood schools, expanded dual language programs, and added fine arts programs, advanced academics, and career and technical education courses, Lecholop said.
“By focusing on expanding the offerings in neighborhood schools, building them up, and adding specialized schools, we have seen spectacular growth among our students,” he said. “We’ve seen our enrollment stabilize, and we’ve seen a lot of families who otherwise wouldn’t have sent their students to SAISD schools instead opt for SAISD schools. It’s a win-win for everyone.”
Sorensen said her priorities if elected would be implementing the community schools model in SAISD, which would connect schools with local resources that would help students with their academics, health, and social-emotional learning. She also would put in place mechanisms to engage community members, students, and parents in making decisions, such as where the district spends its budget.
Sorensen got involved with the Alliance after trustees voted in 2018 to convert the failing Stewart Elementary School into an in-district charter, with New York-based charter operator Democracy Prep taking over management of the campus. The Alliance criticized the board for discounting the input of families and staff.
“Our children’s education is something that we all have a stake in,” Sorensen said. “We’re supporting it financially with our tax dollars, so we have a right and an obligation to have a voice and to shape what’s happening within our schools.”
Before moving to San Antonio seven years ago, Sorensen worked in the New York State Legislature and gained experience in public policy research. She has also worked for nonprofit organizations.
District 3 Trustee Debra Guerrero is not seeking reelection, so the race for the open seat pits former City Councilwoman Leticia Ozuna, 54, against Alliance-endorsed candidate Judit Vega, 42.
Ozuna grew up in San Antonio and attended SAISD schools, like her grandfather and father before her and her daughter who graduated in 2019. She said her focus on the board would be helping come up with innovative ways to address pandemic-related learning loss. She believes Martinez is a strong superintendent, and she wants to support his and the board’s efforts.
“The community has offered so much opportunity, so many experiences, and I just want to be allowed to pay back my gratitude by serving,” said Ozuna, who is a digital engineer and sits on the San Antonio Water System board. She served on the City Council from 2012 to 2013, representing District 3.
Like her fellow Alliance-backed candidates, Vega wants to see community-centered schools flourish in SAISD, not private charter entities coming in to operate schools.
“I’d like to see a return to neighborhood schools,” she said. “It has been really difficult for me to continue to send my children to choice schools. We should have the choice to have quality education in our neighborhood schools. My children should have the opportunity to be able to walk to school.”
Vega has a student with learning disabilities in SAISD. She said his needs are not always met, especially this school year. Vega wants to see the district provide funding to schools equitably, and she wants to see vulnerable students like her son and immigrant children receive the same attention at school as other students.
For the past two years, Vega has worked for the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center. Before that, she worked in public health for nine years.
In District 4, incumbent Arthur Valdez, 73, faces Burbank High School teacher Luke Amphlett, 37.
Valdez, a retired aircraft engineer who owns an airline engineering consulting firm, has served on the board for eight years. A Burbank High graduate, he sent his three children to the school, and his grandchildren are current Burbank students.
“If the kids in my community don’t succeed, then my city doesn’t succeed. My state doesn’t succeed, and my nation doesn’t succeed,” he said. “It’s very important to continue what we’ve been doing on the board.”
Valdez points to the board’s successful effort to win voter approval of a $1.3 billion bond in November, the largest in the district’s history. He also praised the improved state rating as progress, dismissing his opponent’s claims that SAISD focuses too much on standardized testing.
“We have no jurisdiction over the testing,” he said. “We don’t support it, but there’s just no choice.”
Amphlett, who has taught U.S. history at Burbank for six years, is married to Lopez, the Alliance president. Lopez recused herself from the process the Alliance used to interview and select candidates to support. Valdez also went through the same process, Lopez said.
The high school teacher said he chose to run for school board because he believes in the transformative power of public education, but he thinks the current board has a history of “terrible decisions.” He slammed several of the board’s votes, including the Stewart Elementary decision. Lopez taught at Stewart before she was elected Alliance president.
Amphlett also criticized the district’s and board’s desire to bring back more students into classrooms this school year, while COVID-19 is still a threat to the community. He said staff slowed down in-person enrollment in many schools.
In September, Amphlett was placed on paid administrative leave for three days after he raised concerns about COVID-19 protocols during a Zoom faculty meeting. He said he was acting in his capacity as Burbank High’s union representative by bringing staff concerns to leadership, which in turn triggered an unspecified investigation by school administrators. He eventually returned to work, but he filed a grievance against the principal because he said his First Amendment rights were violated.
“The direction that all of these decisions lead in is a very authoritarian one. It’s one in which a tiny group of people make decisions for everybody else and not with everybody else,” Amphlett said. “For me as an educator and taxpayer, it’s really horrifying.”
Garza faces Yasmín Parra Codina, an administrative assistant at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
First elected to the board in 2009, 52-year-old Garza said his motivation to continue serving on the school board is the “transformation” SAISD underwent prior to the pandemic, achieving the B rating from the state under Martinez’ leadership. He said he believes he has the experience to help students through the pandemic and that the district has a clear vision of where to go.
While he knows the state accountability system is flawed, Garza said it’s still important for students to excel on standardized exams because that and state ratings impact how the district is perceived.
“It’s not an accurate picture of what’s actually happening in the classroom, but the reality is, that’s the story that is told by the community,” he said. “So, we have to not only be able to become better at that, but still address what is an appropriate performance framework that measures the success of a teacher or a campus.”
Parra Codina, 37, wants to see SAISD shift away from a curriculum designed to improve scores on standardized tests to one that prioritizes academic excellence and cultural awareness. She said the pandemic and the winter storm laid bare the disparities in the community and the basic needs of students that schools meet daily, such as food and access to health care.
But Parra Codina added that she understands her main role as trustee would be listening to the various stakeholders in the SAISD community. She said she could do this in many ways, such as holding quarterly meetings with District 7 residents and business owners and keeping people informed.
Parra Codina graduated from Brackenridge High School before earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at UTSA. She has more than 15 years of experience working with students and multicultural families through local governmental entities, community organizations, and education systems.
“At the end of the day, regardless of the election outcome, I’m still part of the community,” she said. “I’m still going to continue to work and advocate for students.”
Early voting for the May 1 election runs from April 19-27.