A four-person majority on the South San ISD board of trustees have repeatedly voted to reopen the three campuses in the district.
A four-person majority on the South San ISD board of trustees have repeatedly voted to reopen the three campuses in the district. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

South San Antonio Independent School District’s board of trustees is refuting a notion that it exceeded its authority by attempting to reopen campuses without first getting the superintendent’s recommendation.

School board attorney Kevin O’Hanlon sent a statement to the Texas Education Agency in late April responding to a notice that the agency was investigating possible overreach issues by the school district.

In mid-May, TEA monitor Laurie Elliott, who has been observing the district’s operations since January, echoed some of the concerns in the initial TEA notice. She read from reports she had submitted to the state agency and called repeatedly for a conservator to be placed in the district to address to what she described as members of the board violating local policy and state statutes.

Following Elliott’s report, Board President Connie Prado told reporters the district would respond to the allegations through O’Hanlon.

During a special meeting called for Monday night, a four-trustee majority of South San trustees voted to authorize district legal counsel to file a response to “actions taken by the Texas Education Agency or its employees, officers or appointed agents under the Texas Education Code.”

O’Hanlon had initially responded to the TEA special accreditation investigation at the behest of board president Prado, he said. With what he called “more clarity” on his role to represent the board after Monday night’s vote, he said he now plans to respond to issues as they arise.

In a letter sent on April 26, about a week after Texas Education Agency gave notice of its special accreditation investigation into South San ISD, O’Hanlon also questioned how the State’s Commissioner of Education Mike Morath authorized the investigation. O’Hanlon’s letter provides insight into how some members of the board might defend themselves against the TEA’s allegations.

In its special accreditation investigation letter, the TEA cited multiple complaints about trustees exceeding their authority by directing district administrators in day-to-day operations and attempting to reopen three shuttered campuses — Athens Elementary, Kazen Middle School, and West Campus High School — by next school year, despite concerns that there was not enough enrollment to support the action and without first obtaining a recommendation to do so from Superintendent Alexandro Flores.

A four-trustee majority, including trustees Homer Flores, Shirley Ibarra Pena, Connie Prado, and Gilbert Rodriguez, has repeatedly voted to further the proposal, recently approving initial construction and a plan to staff the campuses.

As part of the investigation, the state said it would conduct interviews, make observations and inspections, and collect various records. State special accreditation investigations can produce a variety of results. If complaints are found credible, the TEA can recommend sanctions that include a conservatorship or board of managers.

Days after the district was notified of the investigation, board president Prado indicated South San would comply with TEA’s investigation.

In his April 26 letter, O’Hanlon asked for the allegation that trustees didn’t take the superintendent’s recommendation be dismissed. The attorney argued that while the board chose not to follow the superintendent’s recommendation to further study the reopening of the schools before proceeding, there is no legal requirement that trustees do so.

“The Board owes the Superintendent the obligation to receive and consider his recommendations concerning these issues,” O’Hanlon wrote. “It is not required to follow these recommendations. This is especially so in the case of South San Antonio ISD where the Superintendent and the opposition on the Board of Trustees have expressly stated that they do not oppose the re-opening of the target schools. The debate is over the timetable.”

The attorney later addressed fiscal management of the district. In the April 18 TEA letter, the agency cited a specific section of the education code that covers budget preparation. O’Hanlon points out that the TEA letter doesn’t specifically reference a complaint based on budgetary procedures.

O’Hanlon described this reference as puzzling because it doesn’t appear that the TEA is looking into any budgetary issues.

“The statutory reference to budgetary concerns appears to be a clear overreach,” O’Hanlon wrote.

At the close of his letter, O’Hanlon questioned whether Morath authorized the investigation into South San ISD in the first place and said not stating how Morath did so constitutes a “distinct legal and procedural error.”

The TEA letter noted that the notice of the investigation can be supplemented or amended as the investigation continues, but O’Hanlon states the board would like those amendments to come with specific commissioner authorization.

Trustees plan to comply with requests for records of communications between board members. Members of district staff are compiling relevant emails from trustee email accounts, and O’Hanlon wrote that he asked trustees to compile emails and other data from personal accounts that may have been used as alternate communication avenues.

The board attorney said this evidence-gathering process could take several weeks.

On Monday night, O’Hanlon told reporters that state investigators would be arriving in the district in about a week or 10 days for in-person interviews. He estimated the results of the investigation wouldn’t be available for several months.

In Elliott’s reports, the TEA monitor observed that “the board is totally managing the district with the assistance of the lawyer.”

O’Hanlon refuted the notion that he was managing the district, saying his role was to help facilitate the process so discussions could happen in the midst of a contentious debate.

“[My job is to] put it all out there and let them fight and the first to four wins,” O’Hanlon said.

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.