(From left) Martha Owen and Shelley Potter wait at the elevator to go to the fourth floor.
(From left) Martha Owen, San Antonio Alliance attorney, and Shelley Potter, San Antonio Alliance president, wait at an elevator in June 2018 before requesting a temporary injunction against SAISD over Democracy Prep at Steward Elementary. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel on Friday asked a Bexar County District judge to halt an agreement that would convert Stewart Elementary School to an in-district charter. The Alliance is seeking a temporary injunction against the San Antonio Independent School District, arguing that the district did not properly consult with Stewart Elementary employees before approving the contract.

The deal between SAISD and charter operator Democracy Prep, finalized in March, allows the school district to pause the State’s accountability system for Stewart, a school that has repeatedly received failing grades from the Texas Education Agency. If the agreement remains as is, Democracy Prep will take control of the campus on July 1.

Without this partnership, or significant improvement in standardized exam scores to give Stewart a passing grade, the TEA likely would close the campus or turn over control of the district to a State-appointed board of managers.

In a hearing Friday, the Alliance’s attorney, Martha Owen, argued before Judge Karen Pozza that in partnering with Democracy Prep, SAISD violated a portion of the Texas Education Code that states a school district “must consult with campus personnel regarding the provisions to be included in the contract between the school district and the open-enrollment charter school.”

Owen said the consultation referred to in this section of the code did not take place, while SAISD attorney Darin Darby said the consultation wasn’t required because Democracy Prep is not an open-enrollment charter, but rather a nonprofit in the state of Texas.

The San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel argue to halt an agreement that would convert Stewart Elementary School to an in-district charter run by Democracy Prep.
Alejandra Lopez testifies about her experience as a Stewart Elementary teacher. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The State defines open-enrollment charter schools very narrowly, and schools that qualify are approved by a specific process in Texas. Locally, KIPP San Antonio and IDEA Public Schools qualify as open-enrollment charters. Democracy Prep has not been authorized through this process and is, therefore, operating as a nonprofit, Darby said.

The consultation requirement also had been waived by the Texas Education Agency, Darby said, pointing to a letter from TEA Associate Commissioner Joe Siedlecki dated May 22 that approved the agreement between SAISD and Democracy Prep. Siedlecki’s letter stated that because the agreement is between a school district and a “campus or campus program charter” and not an open-enrollment charter school, the requirements for consultation cited by the Alliance do not apply.

Owen countered Darby’s narrow definition of “open-enrollment charter” by detailing an exchange between lawmakers who passed the legislation that allows for the charter partnerships. She said legislators intended the consultation clause to apply to all charter partners, not just ones defined as having open enrollment.

“Perhaps it is sloppy [drafting] by the Legislature, but the intent of the statute is clearly to impose requirements on entities that are contracting with school districts,” Owen said.

Even if consultation isn’t deemed legally necessary, Darby said, SAISD still took steps to consult with employees. On Jan. 18, the week before a January board meeting at which trustees gave initial approval to the charter partnership agreement, Superintendent Pedro Martinez and two other district officials met with Stewart employees to talk about the law that allows for charter partnerships and how the agreement would impact jobs at the school.

“Consult does not mean consent,” Darby said, later handing out a paper copy of the Powerpoint presentation used at the meeting. “The evidence you have before you shows that the consultation took place. Whether the members of the plaintiff’s Alliance like the contract is a whole other deal.”

(From left) Darin Darby and Philip Marzec, SAISD attorneys, and Joe Hoffer, representing Democracy Prep, write down notes as Alejandra Lopez takes the stand.
(From left)SAISD attorneys Darin Darby and Philip Marzec and Joe Hoffer, representing Democracy Prep, take notes as Alejandra Lopez takes the stand. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

At several points during Friday’s hearing, Darby said the Alliance had a process by which it could lodge complaints about the charter agreement and that the lawsuit was not the proper vehicle to air grievances. He said teachers should follow the standard district grievance process.

The Alliance filed a grievance in March, and had the first meeting in the process with Deputy Superintendent Pauline Dow, Alliance President Shelley Potter told reporters outside of court. However, she said, seeing the grievance process through to its conclusion can take up to eight months, by which time Democracy Prep will have begun running Stewart.

“If the court doesn’t halt it, it will be too late to fix the situation,” Potter said. “The train will have left the station. … We feel like there is still time to fix, to right the wrong.”

Darby asked Potter and Stewart Elementary teacher Alejandra Lopez whether an injunction could result in the closure of the school without any charter partnership to pause the accountability system. Potter conceded that it was one potential result, but also said Stewart could get high enough exam grades to get out from under the thumb of the accountability system and stop the process of school closure altogether.

Potter said based on initial spring 2018 STAAR results, she has reason to believe this is also a possibility.

When asked what outcome she would prefer between campus closure and Democracy Prep taking over, Lopez testified that she believed “it would be to the detriment of our students for Stewart to be under the operations of Democracy Prep.”

Pozza said she would issue a decision Monday on the injunction request.

The Alliance’s larger goal is to render the contract between Democracy Prep and SAISD null and void, Potter told reporters outside court. However, if a temporary injunction is granted, she hopes the district will return to the consultation process and listen to teachers’ concerns about Democracy Prep’s programs for bilingual students and policy on suspending students.

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.