The South San Independent School District is facing a $12 million budget deficit, and after two community meetings that included talk of closures and pay cuts, no consensus has been reached on how to reduce spending.

The district’s deficit is due to years of declining enrollment, below capacity operations, the cost of reopening campuses and aging facilities, district officials said in a presentation Monday at Alan B. Shepard Middle School. District staff and Superintendent Henry Yzaguirre proposed closing under-enrolled schools in January, but board members voted down the measure.

Parents and stakeholders pushed back against school closures, citing the importance of neighborhood schools. Some recommended that the district find ways to bring in more revenue by attracting more students. Others have suggested waiting for the Texas Legislature, which has a $27 billion windfall to spend, to approve a budget that could include more funds for schools.

Without school closures, the district staff proposed declaring a financial exigency, which would result in further reductions to staff salaries or the elimination of up to 160 positions.

Through a so-called 1882 partnership, the district also could collaborate with an outside organization — such as a nonprofit, charter school or university — to run the day-to-day operations of the school. That option was also shrugged off by several trustees.

The second community meeting Monday night ended with parents, teachers and some board members asking for another way forward after being presented with the options.

One of the speakers, Angelita Olvera, spoke several times while wearing a white shirt with the words “Don’t close our schools” emblazoned on the front.

“I can’t believe with all you sitting here you could not put your heads together to come up with a plan that could save these schools,” she said during public comment.

In a series of presentations, district staff laid bare the reasons and the consequences of the current budget crisis, which South San has staved off in recent years with COVID-19 relief funding.

The deficit, district staff said, is due to years of declining enrollment, below capacity operations, the cost of reopening campuses and aging facilities.

District staff once again proposed the option of closing Athens Elementary School, Kindred Elementary School, Kazen Middle School and West Campus High School during Monday’s meeting.

West Campus had been closed before, in 2007, because of flood damage. In 2017, Athens and Kazen were shut because of declines in enrollment. All three were reopened in a controversial vote by trustees in 2019.

But enrollment has steadily declined since 2012 from around 10,000 to less than 8,000, leaving the reopened campuses severely underutilized, officials said.

South San ISD Superintendent Henry Yzaguirre talks about the district’s financial dilemma during a special meeting with the community at Alan B. Shepard Middle School on Monday. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

Overall, only 56% of classrooms across the district are full, according to the district, with some schools, including Kazen Middle School, less than 30% enrolled.

But parents and other stakeholders pushed back.

“Neighborhood schools are important,” said Tom Cummins, who spoke on behalf of the South San American Federation of Teachers union.

Cummins said the district should find ways to bring in more revenue, including bringing more students back. He also said the district should wait for the Legislature to approve a budget, which could include more money for schools.

Several board members reflected on the last time schools were closed in a process they said was chaotic, and dangerous.

District 6 Trustee Cyndi Ramirez said her son was in the district at the time and saw it first hand — adding that she fears such a thing could happen again if the district rushes a decision without a proper plan.

“We all know what is going on all over the United States. Kids go in, they shoot up schools for no reason,” she said. “Now you have to ask yourself, will you be giving them a reason this time around?”

Melinda Jasso, a teacher and parent in the district, asked board members and the district leadership why teachers weren’t part of the conversations when it became clear cuts had to be made.

“I’ve never felt more at home and like family than I do here at South San, so everything that is going on is very personal because I feel very vested in this district,” she said.

Yzaguirre responded by saying the district fell short, adding that they were running out of time.

“I don’t want to call it triage just yet, but we were not going to be going past this beyond March,” he said. “The data was staring us right in the face and we have to make a decision, right? We have to make a decision.”

The impacts of the financial crisis are already impacting students and staff across the district, officials said.

Six of the district’s 16 campuses are failing, according to state accountability rankings, although Trustee Stacey Alderete noted that is down from 12 before COVID-19.

Millicent Marcha, South San’s chief academic officer, said the reason the district is unable to compete for specialized staff positions such as dyslexia teachers or gifted education teachers, among other positions, is the district can’t afford the salaries and incentives to bring them there.

“We do not have an interventionist or an at-risk teacher at any of our elementary schools, at any of our middle schools or at any of our high schools,” she said. “What that means is that the general education teacher is having to provide instruction for those students that are struggling and reading, those students that are struggling in math, and those students that are struggling in reading and math that might also be part of a subpopulation.”

Overall, salaries for teachers, custodians, food service workers and bus drivers in South San are also among the lowest in the region.

James Castaneda, a ninth grade teacher at South San High School, called the low salaries “a slap in the face.”

“Y’all need to make us a priority,” he said. “Y’all need to pay us what we’re worth.”

Without school closures, the district could declare a financial exigency, district staff proposed. According to the TEA, that means “that the financial resources of a school district are insufficient to support its instructional programs or it is unable to finance the full compensation of staff for the current or next fiscal year.”

By declaring exigency, the district would then have the ability to implement layoffs or pay cuts.

Alderete said that option should be off the table, since the board presentation included salary information on teachers and other staff, but not administration or central office staff.

At the conclusion of the meeting, parents, board members and school administrators agreed that something needed to be done.

District 2 Trustee Ernesto Arellano Jr. said the board was facing more state involvement if they didn’t take action soon.

“We either support our superintendent … or we risk the state saying enough is enough,” he said.

Former trustee Gilbert F. Rodriguez, who resigned from the board then failed to rescind it, presented his own plan to board members Monday.

The plan, which was provided to the San Antonio Report, includes downsizing the footprint of some campuses, transitioning to a more traditional employee insurance program and slightly increasing class sizes.

Rodriguez commended the board for not voting to close schools and told them to stand strong against any actions by the TEA .

But action by the TEA could be coming soon one way or another.

The district has been under state monitoring by former South San Superintendent Abelardo “Abe” Saavedra since a two-year investigation found that the board failed to collaborate with the superintendent, among other things. Saavedra said recent actions by the board, including voting down a recommendation to close schools, show that the board is exhibiting similar behaviors.

“Whenever a superintendent puts a recommendation, such as closing schools, in front of a board in order to close a $10 million deficit and it gets voted down with no explanation or other solutions for plugging that budget deficit, I would say that’s a lack of collaboration with the superintendent,” he told the San Antonio Report.

Saavedra said he was unable to comment on whether the district would face more hands-on intervention by the TEA following its recent financial woes, but the agenda for a special called meeting of South San’s trustees Wednesday includes an item to discuss “pending TEA investigations.”

A TEA spokesperson confirmed Monday evening that the district is under investigation, but did not provide any further details.

While the $12 million deficit is a daunting task to overcome, Saavedra cautioned the board during the meeting that closing that gap was only the beginning.

“When you close that gap, you get the status quo,” he said. “If you really want to have … the instructional people in classrooms and teachers to provide all the services you’re supposed to provide for students, it’s gonna take more than a  $12 million deficit.”

Saavedra added that once the board is able to do that, they may be able to attract parents back to the district.

“Parents stay in successful school districts,” he said. “But you’re not going to get a successful school district or parents who continue to stay … unless you can resolve all these problems that the administration presented to you today.”