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Since he arrived in San Antonio, San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD) Superintendent Pedro Martinez has been fielding requests to lease or buy vacant properties from the district’s portfolio. Many of those offers came from charter networks and those who support them.
Last month, the district announced plans to sell some of its major real estate holdings, but none have been made public for others such as Brewer Elementary School, Nelson Elementary School, and Steele Elementary School, all of which closed at the end of the 2014-15 school year.
Ultimately, Martinez has no intentions to lease or sell off-market space to charter schools or any other entity at this time.
“We’re not a real estate company. We’re a school district,” he said.
However, that doesn’t mean he’s not looking for creative ways to maximize district resources.
The Texas chapter of a national blog, watchdog.org, reported that SAISD had offered rent-free campus space to charter schools looking to expand, as long as those schools were willing to become in-district charters of SAISD, and therefore employees of the district.
Martinez confirmed that he is open to such an arrangement during an interview with the Rivard Report on Friday, but was clear that nothing has progressed beyond initial explorations. He has been getting to know the charter schools within SAISD boundaries and seeing what conversations are possible.
“Really, we’re just testing the waters,” he said.
The district currently has 14 in-district charters, some of which are among the most high-performing schools in the district, including Young Women’s Leadership Academy, Young Men’s Leadership Academy, Travis Early College High School, and Bonham Academy.
At the end of the day, Martinez said, he wants to leverage all assets toward improving outcomes and serving families in the district.
“This is my way of utilizing empty buildings that I have and a way to provide more options for families,” he said.
Families Empowered is a nonprofit designed to inform families of the charter, public, and private school options available in their area. Their mission finds many points of agreement with Martinez’s outlook, though they are obviously significantly less committed to the traditional district.
Rachael Dempsey, Families Empowered marketing and communications manager, said that SAISD has already showed themselves to be open-minded and cooperative by participating in the organization’s school choice fairs.
While Families Empowered has no way to facilitate agreements between SAISD and charter networks, Dempsey said, they would applaud any cooperation.
“If at the end of the day it brings more options to San Antonio families, we encourage that,” she said.
Martinez’s willingness to work with charters in his district may seem odd in light of the adversarial political conversations surrounding the issue. The superintendent, however, sees a practical and ideological advantage to cooperation. Practically, new charters are being approved every day, Martinez said.
“They’re going to come whether we partner with them or not,” he said.
Ideologically, Martinez would rather see all parties working together to contribute to student success. As long as they share the vision and values, he doesn’t see why they shouldn’t work together to serve all families in the district.
Of course, there are limits to how much each entity can adjust its operations to accommodate this.
Having charters use SAISD buildings and operate completely outside of the district is “not on the table,” Martinez said.
As charter networks watch their waitlists expand dramatically, the possibility of rent-free space is exciting, but the arrangement is in no way imminent from their perspective either. Charters like Great Hearts Texas and KIPP are part of networks with distinct identities. Becoming part of the SAISD institution may not be an option for them, according to charter advocates.
The main operational difference would be compensation structures, Martinez said, which are determined at the district level. Philosophically, the charters would have autonomy to run schools and even make staffing decisions, as they have been. If those schools did become part of SAISD, Martinez would like to see current employees learning from the teaching methods and other innovations happening in the charters.
“I think that’s a more productive way to work,” he said, rather than compete for students.
It also gets back to the original intent of charters, which was to serve as incubators for new ideas to feed into the larger education system.
As charter networks grow more and more prominent with demonstrated success and heavy support from the Texas legislature, several models of district/charter cooperation have emerged. Spring Branch ISD in suburban Houston has become a national model of cooperation, and Grand Prairie ISD in North Texas has begun a space-sharing arrangement between charters and traditional schools.
There’s no question that any collaboration will draw heated discussion. Some believe charters have all the answers, and others believe they have no place in public education. Throughout the country, charters, school districts, and cooperations between them have experienced a wide range of success and failure.
Martinez would prefer to set politics aside, and leverage every resource to make SAISD a success story.
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This post was originally published on April 15.
Top image: SAISD Superintendent meets with The Rivard Report following his State of the District address in January. Photo by Scott Ball.