The San Antonio Independent School District board of trustees voted after a hearing Thursday to terminate its partnership agreement with the School Innovation Collaborative (S-I-C) effective Friday.

That means that SAISD will regain full control of Bowden Academy, Lamar Elementary School, Gates Elementary School and Cameron Elementary School, which were being operated by the nonprofit. Trustees for S-I-C, which has denied wrongdoing, are set to meet early Friday to approve the termination agreement.

The mutual decision came after an SAISD investigation uncovered two employees working at a non-SAISD “micro-school” that was operating on the same campus of a separate charter school in partnership with another public Texas school district. The employees were fulfilling roles for S-I-C instead of performing their jobs at SAISD campuses they were assigned to, according to district officials.

The bizarre case comes as lawmakers and advocates brace for a showdown in Austin during a pending special legislative session about whether public school dollars should be diverted by parents to schools of their choice, including private schools. 

Board President Christina Martinez said after a hearing Thursday on S-I-C’s contract that the situation was an exception to the many partnerships the district has.

“It is crucial to understand that the situation involving S-I-C is unique and specific to the circumstances surrounding it,” she said. “We have a long and successful track record of partnerships that have benefited our students and the community and they should not be overshadowed by this isolated situation.”

Charter claims business as usual

Denise Pierce, an attorney for S-I-C argued that the school, and the use of employees for non-SAISD work, was allowed under state law and the contract signed with the district, noting that the practices have occurred for years. 

“Our staffing model has always been transparent to the district and in our campus budgets. We were very forthcoming with the district about how we were building our positions,” Pierce said. “No one ever told us it was wrong. And no one ever told us not to do it the way we had been doing it.”

The partnership was authorized in 2019 under SB 1882, which allows districts to partner with outside organizations, which are exempt from many of the requirements and regulations required of traditional ISDs. The contract was set to last until 2029.

District staff staunchly disagreed that the authority extended to opening a school, pointing to the stipulations in the agreement requiring funds generated to go to the four campuses operated by the nonprofit. 

“Funding for their roles at these campuses was dispersed from budgets allocated to those campuses by the state for the partnership,” Toni Thompson, the chief of staff for the district said. “It’s also important to note that the funding that was provided to the schools by the state was supposed to be used for the campuses and the students and staff that were being served and supported on those campuses.”

The school was initially intended to be part of the district, Pierce said.

Without SAISD as a partner however, the nonprofit found a way to partner the micro-school with Benavides Independent School District in South Texas, further complicating the situation.

That affiliation was shared in testimony at the hearing, and a blog post by the founder of the school, Megan Correia, who is still listed as a sixth-grade science teacher at Lamar Elementary on SAISD’s website. (SAISD would not comment on whether Correia is currently employed, citing a policy to not comment on personnel issues.) 

In the blog post, Correia said the idea for TriPoint emerged when her fifth-grade class went on a three-day two-night trip to Bamberger Ranch west of Austin. It is unclear if that class was at SAISD, but another S-I-C school had a similar trip in Feb. 2023.

Students came back as “changed learners” according to Correia, who said she wanted to replicate the experience by  creating “a school focused on the interconnectedness of the world around us, including helping students reconnect with the natural world.”

The blog post does not detail how the partnership with Benavides ISD came to be. 

The school dubs itself San Antonio’s first free public micro school, “offering a private education experience with no cost.” 

While not named during the hearing, the two employees that are alleged to have doubled up their job duties abruptly resigned when approached for questioning during the investigation, according to Thompson. Martinez questioned Pierce about the move, finding that S-I-C coordinated with the employees to step down. 

That could result in sanctions, if the board decides to report the contract breaches to the Texas Education Agency, which “could be career ending,” according to Martinez. 

Pierce said the nonprofit was under the impression that the departure is what the district wanted after clarification of previously murky guidelines over the roles and responsibilities of workers employed by SAISD but under the management of S-I-C. 

When questioned by board members, Pierce said there was no written agreement allowing the employees to be diverted.

“What confirms that agreement is our practice over the years that has not been questioned, as well as our notice to the district of how we were going to be using our staff and no immediate refusal of that approach,” she said during the hearing.

Breakdown in trust led to termination

While “not legally required to do so,” the lawyer said the salary of the employees, totalling more than $180,000 would be paid back to the school. 

Despite the disappointment in the situation, Pierce said that S-I-C  is proud of the financial savings and benefits it has brought to SAISD. She emphasized the importance of a mutual termination agreement due to the deterioration of trust between the parties.

“We leave behind the set of campuses that are at the cutting edge of literacy reform and state recognized leaders in the shift to more research-based curriculum,” she said “Ultimately, my client is the most proud of its campus leadership teams, of its campus staff and their unity behind the school model and their relentless commitment to see that model positively impact our students.”

Parents of Lamar Elementary School students spoke out with concerns about what comes next, and lambasted the district for allowing the issues to fester to the point they are at now. 

Among those parents was Shannon Oster-Gabrielson, who said she is concerned about the other 1882 partnerships the district has now, too. 

“This is not a fair position to be put into six weeks into the school year,” she said. “Lamar has now had several challenges to deal with because of our leadership at school.”

Thanks to teachers, the first few weeks have been able to work, Oster-Gabrielson said. 

She also urged the board not to use the situation to “justify any right-sizing decisions about Lamar,” referring to the process the district is going through to downsize and close campuses due to declining enrollment. 

“Tell us how you are going to do better by us,” she said. “We need that level of transparency of what comes next.” 

Following the termination, the future of the nonprofit is unclear. Representatives for the organization have not responded to requests for comment, and SAISD has not said what will come of the investigation.

In addition to the allegations of teachers being placed at non SAISD schools, Aquino told parents in a letter Monday that the district learned “that S-I-C has not been complying with Texas Education Agency accountability requirements, among other shortcomings.”

A spokesperson for the TEA said no complaints against S-I-C had been received by the agency as of Thursday.

According to a website for S-I-C, two new partnerships with schools in South Texas are coming soon as part of a “Rural Excellence Network.”

SB 1882 has history of complications

The saga is not the first time public school districts have faced complications from 1882 partnerships.

A Texas Monthly investigation last year uncovered an effort by political operatives to approve an 1882 partnership with Wimberley Independent School District and an organization called the “Texans for Education Rights Institute” to create a charter school.

According to documents obtained by Texas Monthly, the school would only exist on paper, with the North Texas charter school provider ResponsiveEd placing K-12 students from across Texas into private schools with no cost to families. 

Concerns about the reaction of other school leaders if Wimberley were to be absorbing students from other districts, among other concerns, eventually defeated the proposal, although proponents at the time were quoted as saying they would be looking for other districts to implement the idea. 

A representative for Benavides ISD didn’t return an email requesting comment during the meeting Thursday evening. 

But board members were quick to point out the conflict of a competing school opening in the district at the same time the district undergoes a process to downsize as a result of declining enrollment. 

Trustee Sarah Sorensen said that “having folks on SAISD payroll, designing … and opening a micro-school within our district at a period of time when we are talking about needing to close small schools” is a conflict of interest.

“We are using district resources that are going against the best interests of our district,” she added.

Isaac Windes is an award-winning reporter who has been covering education in Texas since 2019, starting at the Beaumont Enterprise and later at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. A graduate of the Walter Cronkite...