This story has been updated.

A monitor appointed by the Texas Education Agency in 2021 to report on South San Antonio Independent School District’s board, which has been embroiled in dysfunction this year as it faces a $12 million budget shortfall, will ask the agency to increase governance sanctions against the district in his May monthly report. 

Abelardo “Abe” Saavedra told trustees of his intentions in blistering remarks at a board meeting Wednesday night, but stopped short of recommending what exactly those increased sanctions should be. 

“At this point, it is clear that the appointment of a monitor has not been sufficient to improve the governance of South San ISD or improve individual board member behavior,” he said. “Squabbling and bickering among board members had been demonstrated at nearly every board meeting and in email communications between board members.” 

Past escalations by the TEA have included ousting elected boards of trustees and replacing them with an appointed board of managers to remedy governance issues and stabilize shortfalls highlighted during special investigations. Currently, the district is in the midst of two separate investigations by the agency.

After a particularly fraught meeting last month, Trustee Ernesto Arrellano Jr. said he hoped “TEA was listening,” as board members shouted over each other about the closure of West Campus High School, a move that the district’s administration said was necessary in order to avert financial crisis due to a looming $12 million financial deficit.

But others aren’t keen on any intervention by the agency. 

Gilbert F. Rodriguez, a former board member oft cited in Saavedra’s reports, said during public comments Wednesday before Saavedra spoke, that the monitor was a “hindrance” and “impediment” to the district becoming what it needs to be, adding that he saw Saavedra’s actions as overreach. He asked the board to find a way to remove him. 

Only a handful of the 17 reports written by Saavedra for the agency in the last year-and-a-half have reported the district as “on-track” to achieve goals set out after a previous investigation, according to records reviewed by The San Antonio Report, with the rest detailing dysfunction that threatened district operations on a regular basis and at one point nearly cost employees their health care. 

Trustees also regularly acted in violation of the Texas Education Code, according to the reports, with actions such as refusing to comply with public information requests, recording conversations with a previous superintendent and breaking quorum regularly, halting board business needed to perform basic district functions.

In his remarks, Saavedra noted that no items from a list of directives given to the board at the time of his appointment in October 2021 had been completed. 

Chief among those was a directive to complete governance training as a team to learn how to work together as a board following years of failing to do so leading up to the monitor appointment. 

While the board initially agreed to complete the training at the beginning of the year, they never went through with it. Trustee Stacey Alderete announced at the beginning of April that she would be stepping down at the end of June, making any team training moot until after then, Saavedra said. But board members have not yet discussed a plan to replace her seat after she steps down. 

Saavedra said an email he saw planned for a decision to be made at an August board meeting — months after she initially announced her resignation.

Board leadership has changed four times since Saavedra was appointed, with each leadership change bringing recriminations and infighting. Resignations and elections have also reshaped the board, but the underlying dysfunction only had a small reprieve in August of 2022, when the board was on track and cooperative.

The urgency of the dysfunction, which Saavedra told The Report has plagued the district on and off for three decades, is highlighted in increasingly dire narratives written in the monthly reports. 

In the last two years, several board meetings have been canceled or ended early due to board members breaking quorum by choice, or by being booted from virtual meetings.

Other meetings have ended with board members being escorted out by district police officers. Angelita Olvera, one of the few community members to attend meetings, was barred from returning for a month after she angrily approached the dais. 

Olvera returned to the board room Wednesday, where she said that despite the dysfunction, she does not want the TEA to expand its reach in the district.

New board members are needed, she said.

Saavedra is one part of a rotating cast of conservators and monitors who have been appointed by the state agency to steady the board over the years. That is part of the reason for the first recommendation he is making in his time as a monitor.  

“Clearly, the idea of a monitor is not working,” Saavedra said. “It has been a year and nine months.” 

If the agency does take actions to initiate a take over, they could be in for a legal fight. 

Recent takeovers of other districts in the state have taken months or years to take effect, including the high profile saga of Houston ISD, which fought a takeover in court for four years before dropping a lawsuit in March of this year and losing control. That take over was triggered by a chronically failing school that made no improvements for seven years. 

Saavedra said the difference between those situations is the entrenched and historic nature of the dysfunctional board politics in South San Antonio ISD. Saavedra has been the superintendent of both embattled districts throughout his career.

The TEA did not respond to a requests for comment Wednesday.

Despite the board issues, Saavedra said the instructional parts of the district have remained intact, and are not dysfunctional.

“Kids are getting a fairly good education at South San … and the instructional side of the district is not dysfunctional,” he said. “It could be better, if the adults that make decisions on how to spend the money spent it to better support them.” 

Board members did not direct remarks at Saavedra or respond to his report as they have in past meetings.

Superintendent Henry Yzaguirre refocused Wednesday’s meeting during his remarks, the first he has given in recent meetings, on the division of the board. 

“Our community meetings should remain student focused and not a platform for shaming one another,” he said. “Let’s repurpose our energy for the good of our district. Let us verse ourselves, know our role and engage. … This school district really needs a united front.” 

In a nod to the start of the meeting, which saw students recognized for academic achievement, competitions and spelling bees, Yzaguirre said the future needed to be about the students. 

Spelling bee trophies for South San ISD students which were handed out at the beginning of the school board meeting on Wednesday evening.
Spelling bee trophies for South San ISD students were handed out at the beginning of the school board meeting Wednesday evening. Credit: Brenda Bazán / San Antonio Report

“I will not let the negative feedback or comments overshadow all of the accomplishments our students and staff have worked all year to achieve and I have no intentions of breaking this commitment,” he said. “Either join us for what is going to be a great run or step aside and watch from the sidelines. Either way this school district will be back on top with those who truly want to be here for the right reasons.”

Also in Wednesday’s meeting, the board voted 4-3 to hire a forensic auditor to report to the board on district finances, over the advice of Saavedra, who said last week that the act could be illegal.

Before the vote, the board’s attorney confirmed to board members that a forensic audit, which was approved, is “specifically designed to detect fraud or misuse of money.” 

Despite that, Homer Flores, the board president, said that the audit was only about transparency. 

“There is no one that is under investigation, there is no one that is targeted,” he said. “The idea was that we come with hands open and in the surrendering position, but also … asking for transparency and accountability. It never hurts to have a third set of eyes to look at our finances.”

Trustees Manuel Lopez, Ernesto Arrellano Jr. and Shirley Ibarra said the move appeared to be an attack on the superintendent, in part for his recommendation to close schools. Lopez also noted the cost of such an audit could cost as much as $200,000.

Ibarra said she would like to see a conservator installed in the district.