After less than two months on the job, the state-appointed monitor assigned to South San Antonio Independent School District told the board of trustees Wednesday that it violated both state law and its own policy during recent meetings.

Board members thanked Abelardo “Abe” Saavedra, the monitor, for his observations and vowed to improve their governance of the school district. Following a two-year investigation, the Texas Education Agency placed the board under the supervision of Saavedra, who started Sept. 30.

Investigators found that trustees failed to cooperate with the superintendent and acted outside of their authority by contacting district staff to seek information and discuss district business, such as disciplinary issues and changes to board agendas. Board members also demonstrated overreach of their duties by contacting vendors, consultants, and other educational organizations on the district’s behalf without informing the superintendent, according to the TEA report.

As the monitor, Saavedra is tasked with working with the board and district to identify issues that led to the noncompliance and reporting back to the TEA. That includes ensuring the board adopts policies that delineate trustee and superintendent duties, completes TEA-approved governance training, and presents the required policies at a public board meeting.

Saavedra told the board Wednesday that it violated the Texas Open Meetings Act when it discussed in open session the reprimands it issued Superintendent Marc Puig at the Aug. 31 meeting. The board voted 5-2, with Gilbert Rodriguez and Stacey Alderete dissenting, to reprimand Puig for “violations of the district’s school board procurement policies” and “dereliction of his employment duties to the board of the trustees.”

The remarks board members made at that meeting had been discussed in closed session, Saavedra said.

“That was inappropriate,” he said. “That needs to be addressed.”

TEA appointed monitor Dr. Abelardo Saavedra explains the ways that the South San Board of Trustees has violated both state law and its own policy during recent meetings.
TEA appointed monitor Abelardo “Abe” Saavedra explains the ways that the South San Board of Trustees has violated both state law and district policy in recent meetings. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

Saavedra said the board also violated the Open Meetings Act at the Oct. 21 meeting when it voted to procure documents from a law firm Puig had hired to investigate an employee because it was not on the meeting agenda.

At that meeting, the board voted to commission an external audit — against Saavedra’s advice — of the superintendent’s expenditures since he was hired last year.

It also voted to request documents from Juan Cruz & Associates “related to the superintendent’s procurement” of the firm and to deliver those documents to the external auditors. Puig hired the firm earlier this year to investigate Felipe Barron III, head football coach, whom Puig placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation.

Puig said then that he did not violate policy because he hired the firm to look into a personnel matter, not to represent the board.

Saavedra said the board again violated the Open Meetings Act when it allowed a redistricting committee to meet several times before the board voted to create the committee, which was also a violation of the board’s policy. The panel corrected that action at the Oct. 21 meeting, but that was after the committee met and directed legal counsel to solicit qualifications for redistricting services.

“In my opinion, that request for qualifications is an administrative function and it is not the function of a board committee,” he said. “Going out for qualifications is public business. It must comply with the Open Meetings Act. None of those meetings comply with the Open Meetings Act.”

In addition, Saavedra said it was inappropriate when a trustee, whom he did not name, met with Puig and handed him a 27-page job application packet. Saavedra, who did not divulge the details of the job, said trustees should not be discussing with the superintendent employment opportunities on behalf of staff.

“Those are the type of things that need to be corrected,” he said. “I think a lot of this might be simply lack of education.”

The board must complete TEA-approved board governance training, which it has started but not completed. Saavedra, an experienced superintendent who led South San ISD from 2014 to 2018 and Houston ISD from 2004 to 2009, said he believes that will help resolve some of the problems he discussed with the board.

Alderete said she disagreed that the board’s problems have to do with a lack of education because several members are “tenured board members.”

Trustee Homer Flores then called out Alderete for pointing out other board members’ behavior, saying those type of remarks are “childish acts.”

“The time for name-calling and pointing fingers is over. Those kind of tactics are why we have a monitor right now,” board president Ernesto Arrellano Jr. said. “What we need to do is embrace where we’re at right now and start looking at change.”

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Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum covered education for the San Antonio Report.