The South San Antonio Independent School District board of trustees suggested the possibility of cutting the pay for its superintendent, laying off executive employees and, for the fifth time, the closure of West Campus High School during a fractious meeting Wednesday night.
But other than authorizing a nondescript action by the school district attorney in response to an active Texas Education Agency (TEA) investigation, the board took no actions in the meeting that lasted more than four hours.
Board members also discussed the possibility of bringing in an outside auditor to report to the board on district finances as it grapples with a $12 million budget deficit and a grim financial outlook. Trustees, some of whom laid the blame for the money troubles on Superintendent Henry Yzaguirre and district staff, tabled the issue after discussing it in executive session.
TEA-appointed monitor Abe Saavedra warned during the public comments portion of the meeting that, if approved, the move to hire an auditor could violate the law.
“A forensic audit ordinarily is an audit that is conducted to find fraud [or] some activity like that,” he said. “And ordinarily, unless the superintendent is the target, the superintendent and the administration are involved in that process.”
Not involving the superintendent could run afoul of “education code 11.1512 which requires the collaboration between the superintendent and the board,” Saavedra said.
In an interview Thursday, Saavedra said the audit appeared to be a “fishing expedition.”
Monitor report removed from agenda
The monitor spoke during public comment after an agenda item in place for more than a year reserved for monitor remarks was removed by the board president, Homer Flores Jr. During his comments, Saavedra warned of possible TEA action in response, citing an incident with a previous board president making a similar move.
The removal was apparently in violation of a directive given to the board by TEA Deputy Commissioner of Governance and Accountability Jeff Cottrill when Saavedra was introduced as a monitor during an October 2021 board meeting.
“There will be a standing agenda item where Dr. Saavedra will be afforded the opportunity to address the board,” Cottrill said. “I believe that in years’ past there were some issues relating to that, where the agency’s assigned monitor was actually excluded from being able to provide public reports, which masked and didn’t allow for transparency.”
But the agency said in a statement Thursday that school boards are not required to include an agenda item for the monitor.
“The monitor has no authority to direct a board of trustees to include any agenda items,” the statement said. “Districts can include an agenda item as a courtesy to the monitor. If taken off the agenda, they would be allowed to speak during public comment, if they follow district protocols like any other citizen.”
In recent months, Saavedra has stressed with increasing urgency the need for the board to resolve governance issues and take serious action to resolve a worsening financial outlook.
The district is currently under two separate investigations by the agency. The board voted late Wednesday night to approve action by the district’s attorney related to one of those investigations, but details were not discussed during open session, and a spokesperson for the district did not return a request for comment.
Rifts on display between board, superintendent
During Wednesday’s meeting, board members talked back and forth with each other and the superintendent, including addressing the board through public comments, about a handful of reports on district finances, student attendance and enrollment.
Board members Stacey Alderete and Abel Martinez Jr. spoke during public comment, formerly a rare move that has become commonplace at recent South San Antonio ISD meetings.
Martinez lambasted Yzaguirre for comments he made during a previous board meeting, in which he said the board needs to move forward with a sense of collaboration.
“We don’t need him to do that,” Martinez said. “We are working with him. He needs to stand up and be a superintendent. Quit taking orders from us, you need to do your job.”
Alderete chided Saavedra, saying there was collaboration on the board. Saavedra was brought in to monitor the district after a special investigation found issues with governance, including a lack of collaboration between the board and the superintendent.
“What the public gets and what the public sees is two different things,” Alderete said. “As a constituent, I would like the public to know on multiple occasions the board has been deemed not collaborating with the superintendent. But the question was asked and answered by the superintendent that yes, we were collaborating with the superintendent.”
District looks to recruit students
Along with a presentation on federal Covid-relief funds, district staff also briefed board members on efforts to recruit students, combat chronic absenteeism and manage a $12 million deficit.
In addition to closing three schools, steps taken have included freezing hiring for non-critical positions, limiting the amount of campus allocations based on enrollment and closing open positions, including the deputy superintendent, two assistant principals, the executive director of instructional technology and media services and the director of facilities.
Parents who spoke during public comments, through tears, shared several issues occurring throughout the district.
One parent talked about students getting off of buses soaked in sweat since air conditioners did not work, and the impact on students of not having a speech therapist for years on end.
“All you can do is blame it on COVID,” that parent said, “COVID was three years ago.”
Another parent said that her daughter had been attacked by another student, and has not returned to school since.
Alderete later said that catering to parents like the ones who spoke is what the district needs to do to retain students in the district.
Board president sees bright future
Despite the grim financial outlook that has emerged over the last several years, Flores said that he has a positive outlook for the district, which has had declining enrollment for years.
“We might have an influx of 500 kids,” Flores said. “Why can’t I have that faith? Why do I have to be doomsday? That in two years we are going to be eaten up like vultures.”
Flores also locked horns with Trustee Ernesto Arrellano Jr., who said the district was in danger of ceasing to exist if finances were not addressed.
“You use the word leaver, but I use the word believer,” Flores said, referring to a report district staff gave on students leaving the district. “We have trustees coming up here and having negative connotations on the words they use, then how are we going to gather people to come? I’d rather he grab fliers and put them on people’s houses in the constituents’ areas that he represents.”
Alderete, who is vacating her seat at the end of June, suggested cutting the pay for the superintendent by renegotiating his contract in order to save money, noting the high pay of the superintendent relative to the rest of the county.
Out of 44 traditional public and public charter schools, pay for South San Antonio ISD’s superintendent ranks number 10, according to TEA data, with $270,000 a year.
The school district attorney told board members that consideration would have to be discussed in executive session, which is closed to the public.
For more than five months beginning in December 2021, the district paid the salaries of two superintendents when then-Superintendent Marc Puig was placed on leave pending the outcome of an inquiry into a private conversation captured by a live microphone. Yzaguirre was then hired as interim superintendent, which resulted in the district paying almost $200,000 total to the two until Puig resigned in June 2022.