Texas Education Agency monitor Laurie Elliott speaks to the South San Antonio ISD board in February. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

South San Antonio ISD trustees’ rift with Texas Education Agency-appointed monitor Laurie Elliott came to a head Wednesday night when the board majority voted for a resolution withdrawing the district’s welcome mat for Elliott.

For the past several months, members of the board majority – board President Connie Prado and trustees Homer Flores, Shirley Ibarra Pena, and Gilbert Rodriguez – have questioned Elliott’s authority in South San. Elliott was appointed in November after the previous board, before Flores, Pena, and Rodriguez were elected, asked TEA to appoint a coach to help guide the district’s governance.

Since then, Elliott has delivered scathing reports and called for TEA to take a bigger role in governing the district. On Wednesday night, the board majority voted to reverse the previous board vote, asking for Elliott to be disinvited.

“I’ve been very specific on how I feel about this individual,” trustee Gilbert Rodriguez said. “As far as Laurie Elliott is concerned, she has got to go.”

Members of the board minority disagreed with the decision, saying the board continues to need a TEA monitor to help get the district back on track with best governing practices.

Elliott was not present at Wednesday’s heated meeting, but she spoke to reporters by phone after the vote.

“They have a different perspective and they have a right to speak on that, but I come from no angle or anything of that nature. I’m simply reporting what I see,” Elliott said. She added that what happens with her position is solely up to TEA.

Elliott’s reports have been a contentious matter for board members since they were first read to the public in May.

At the May 15 board meeting, Elliott chastised the board, calling out specific trustees she believed exhibited board overreach and issued directives to the superintendent and his staff. She scolded trustees for not spending enough time talking about student outcomes and called for TEA to appoint a conservator to help govern the district.

On July 24, Elliott again intended to read from her latest reports, detailing observations of board behavior in May and June. However, her place on the agenda was removed and Prado said Elliott could read her reports in executive session, behind closed doors and out of the public eye.

“Her desire to deliver the report in open session was only to once again target the board majority in a manner that demeans, chastises, belittles, and is condescending,” Prado said during Wednesday night’s meeting. “To allow an individual a public forum on which to grandstand is unacceptable.”

South San ISD school board president Connie Prado.
South San ISD school board President Connie Prado

The Rivard Report obtained the May and June reports. In the two months since her last public reading, Elliott observed further board dysfunction and again called for a conservator to be appointed to the district.

“From what the monitor has observed, nothing has changed,” Elliott wrote in her June report. “It seems as if the board is creating chaos for the district financially. … For the sake of the students, a conservator is highly recommended.”

Elliott’s recommendation for a conservator comes at a time when TEA is investigating South San ISD for related allegations of board dysfunction and overreach. Should TEA conclude that issues exist with the way the district or the board operates, the commissioner of education could impose sanctions such as installing a conservator, who can override board votes, or appointing a board of managers to govern the district in place of the elected board of trustees.

Members of the board majority have questioned Elliott’s role in the district, arguing that she is in South San only because trustees invited her there.

The board voted in October – prior to an election that brought Flores, Pena, Rodriguez, and another trustee to the board – to ask TEA for a “representative or a consultant” to help coach trustees on following the Lone Star Governance framework, a TEA backed governance program.

AJ Crabill, Deputy Commissioner of TEA, listens to Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) and South San Kids First give updates about South San ISD’s progress at Palo Alto College.
TEA Deputy Commissioner of Governance A.J. Crabill

TEA Deputy Commissioner of Governance A.J. Crabill wrote to the board in early November, notifying the district that Elliott was appointed as a monitor to South San to “support and monitor the board’s progress as a Mentor District participating in the LSG Cohort.”

On Feb. 5, Crabill again wrote to South San, saying that after a quarterly review of all conservators and management teams appointed throughout the state, he decided to continue Elliott’s appointment in South San.

South San attorney Kevin O’Hanlon has written to TEA seeking some clarity on her role. 

State law allows a commissioner of education to appoint a monitor if a district does not satisfy accreditation criteria, academic performance standards, or financial accountability standards. With South San not having issues in any of these areas, board members questioned why Elliott was appointed as one, the attorney wrote.

“Ms. Elliott simply does not have the authority to direct the lawfully elected Board of Trustees of the [South] San Antonio Independent School District as to the policy options available to such Trustees,” O’Hanlon wrote in February. “While she can and should be an advocate for focusing Trustee attention on matters related to student performance, she has no authority to issue directives such as those which she has already given.”

At Wednesday night’s meeting, Rodriguez said Elliott started intervening when the board began moving ahead with a plan to reopen three campuses by next school year.

“As a matter of fact, every other word out of her mouth was, ‘You guys shouldn’t be opening buildings,'” Rodriguez said, calling her actions offensive, ridiculous, confrontational, and divisive. “She has got to go.”

After the July 24 meeting, Flores wrote Superintendent Alexandro Flores and Prado, expressing concerns that Elliott had used “white privilege-driven speech.” He said he felt “ridiculed’ and “put down” by her.

Elliott told reporters said she merely reports on what she sees related to Lone Star Governance and statute.

“I try to be very objective in my reports in that this is what I’m seeing – this is what I’m seeing in regards to Lone Star Governance,” Elliott said.

Because TEA has not responded to his letter, O’Hanlon said, Elliott’s role is “ambiguous.”

“Until we get something legal from TEA … she has no authority,” Prado said. “She is welcome to come in and comment on anything with Lone Star Governance, but she has gone far beyond and overstepped her authority.”

Trustees Elda Flores, Louis Ybarra, and Mandy Martinez, who voted against the resolution Wednesday night. told their fellow trustees that the board was in need of someone to guide them back to better governance.

“She might have started out as a Lone Star Governance coach, but now it has gone beyond that because of the bad governance of this board, and now she is an appointed monitor,” Elda Flores said.

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.