South San Antonio Independent School District’s superintendent walked out of a special board meeting after trustees unanimously voted to place him on paid leave pending the outcome of an investigation into a private conversation that was picked up by a live microphone.

Before exiting the boardroom Monday night, Marc Puig said he was “no longer the superintendent” since he was placed on leave.

Mark Sanchez, the board’s attorney, corrected Puig after he left, saying he is still the superintendent while he is on paid leave.

The board met behind closed doors for nearly three hours before emerging to vote. The special meeting was called to address remarks Puig and board President Ernesto Arrellano Jr. made at the Nov. 17 meeting, when a microphone captured their private conversation about hiring a consultant.

Trustees also unanimously voted to name Henry Yzaguirre, Southside ISD’s executive director of operations and construction, as interim superintendent. If Yzaguirre does not accept the position, the board will have to name a new interim superintendent.

Arrellano said Yzaguirre was a candidate for the superintendent job last year, but the board instead hired Puig, the seventh superintendent to lead the district since 2011.

The board also voted to commission a second transcript of the conversation between Puig and Arrellano, both of whom did not know the microphone was on at the time. Trustees claimed the transcript they reviewed at Monday’s meeting did not contain the full contents of the conversation.

Puig’s suspension comes a week after trustees and the superintendent were notified in a letter that the Texas Education Agency had opened another investigation into South San ISD. The action came just three months after the TEA concluded a two-year investigation that resulted in the placement of a state-appointed monitor to oversee the school board.

The TEA is investigating complaints the agency has received. The complaints claim the school board has interfered with the superintendent’s duties, including “getting involved with the suspension of a term employee and attempting to make employment recommendations for the chief financial officer,” the letter states.

That was the topic of the conversation captured by the microphone on Nov. 17. Puig had asked the board to approve hiring a consultant to oversee construction projects within the district, but the board tabled the item at that meeting. After adjourning to closed session, Puig and Arrellano stood on the dais and talked about the consultant position, with Arrellano assuring the superintendent that the board would approve the hire at a later date. Puig compared the consultant he wanted to hire to Arrellano’s brother, who is in construction, and said both had the appropriate skills for the job.

Arrellano said, “I’m going to step down so that you can hire my brother.”

Puig responded, “Well, give me hiring authority, and you can. …” The rest of his sentence is not audible on the meeting video.

Board Vice President Homer Flores said at the Monday meeting that the remarks sounded like Puig and Arrellano were “making a deal” or “obtaining a bribe.”

Puig addressed the conversation between him and Arrellano at the beginning of the meeting. He said that alliances on the board change when board members “don’t get their way” and “what almost always arises is the superintendent is eventually pushed out, and that’s where we are tonight.”

He cited the examples of board member Gilbert Rodriguez being removed as board president in May after other trustees accused him of improperly using school facilities and Stacey Alderete being accused of extorting and exploiting the elderly in August.

“You can’t make this stuff up,” Puig said.

“Now, today it is Mr. Arrellano’s turn, and mine, to address the slanderous venom being hurled at both of us because of a live microphone conversation we had Nov. 17 during a board meeting. Do you think I had the decency and courtesy and respect of a simple conversation? Disappointingly, no,” he said

“The unwitting victims of this whole process tonight are the children, our staff and our community,” Puig said. “They are the unwitting victims of undisciplined governance.”

Puig ended his speech by saying he would hold no grudges and continue to work with trustees.

After the meeting, Arrellano said if the investigation shows that Puig did nothing wrong at the Nov. 17 meeting, then the board would end the paid leave and invite him back.

“I don’t know if he would accept that or not,” Arrellano said.

The vote to suspend Puig appeared to unite the board. Earlier in the meeting, trustees debated reorganizing the board and electing Alderete as board president, Flores as vice president and Rodriguez as secretary. The motion failed, with Arrellano, Connie Prado, Shirley Ibarra and Gina Villagomez voting against the reorganization.

State-appointed monitor Abelardo “Abe” Saavedra remarked on the board’s newfound unity. He said at the end of the meeting that in the two months he has been serving as monitor that the discussion at meetings focused heavily on “adult behavior.”

“I’m pleased to see that the board was united on your last two action items this evening,” he said. “Hopefully, you can even work together to change the agenda from adults to young people, and it’s really time for the board to place focus on what’s going on in the schools, what’s going on in instructional programs, and simply move forward.”

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Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum covered education for the San Antonio Report.