The South San Antonio ISD school board.
The South San Antonio ISD school board at a March 27 meeting. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Tense exchanges and sharp divisions characterized the South San Antonio Independent School Board meeting Thursday night as a board attorney reprimanded students for clapping and trustees scolded one another for their votes on a proposal to reopen shuttered campuses.

Ultimately, a four-trustee majority voted to follow a controversial plan that will reopen Athens Elementary, Kazen Middle School, and West Campus High School by next year, taking money from South San’s fund balance to cover the costs.

Superintendent Alexandro Flores previously recommended against approving the plan, asking for more time to research the matter, and two state senators sent a letter to the Texas Education Agency on Wednesday asking the state to install a conservator in the district because of the way the plan has been developed and voted on.

At one point during the more than five-hour meeting, trustee Mandy Martinez, who has not supported the proposal to reopen the schools, asked Budget Committee Chair Gilbert Rodriguez, who is driving the plan, why the schools needed to reopen now.

“There is a difference of can we do it … and do we need to do it right now?” Martinez asked.

Students at the meeting who were opposed to the proposal began clapping, and board counsel Kevin O’Hanlon rose, telling students to “shut up.” Students had been clapping throughout the meeting, which was well into its third hour. A district staff member asked O’Hanlon to not speak to students in that manner.

If we end up with cheering sections for one side or the other, you have chaos,” O’Hanlon said.

Minutes later as trustees returned to discussing regular business, another sharp exchange ensued when Trustee Elda Flores expressed her concerns over the proposal to reopen the schools. Board president Connie Prado responded by scolding Flores for her role in voting to close the schools.

“Let me just remind you the reason we are even here or we are even having to deal with this because a previous board majority including you [andTrustee Louis] Ybarra closed our schools,” Prado said. “You did an injustice to our community because you closed our schools. That was wrong.”

Prado told Flores that if any school should have closed based on enrollment, it should have been Five Palms Elementary, which is located in Flores’ district.

Amid the flare-ups, trustees voted along recent factional lines, with Prado, Rodriguez, Homer Flores, and Shirley Ibarra Pena voting together to forward the proposal to reopen schools.

The plan to reopen shuttered campuses

The four trustees approved using funds from the fund balance, which is similar to a savings account, to fund the reopening of the three shuttered campuses. A district document states South San has about $26.3 million in its fund balance as of Aug. 31, 2018. A typical month incurs between $6 million and $7 million of costs.

To maintain at least a three-month operating expense balance in the fund balance, trustees could “safely use” $6.5 million from the fund balance, the board document states.

The plan approved Thursday night also includes a timeline that dictates furniture will begin to be moved into Athens and Kazen by mid-July. The plan also stipulates a principal, assistant principal, and academic coach for Athens and Kazen be filled from existing positions.

“If authorization [for these positions in the budget] is not problematic and the superintendent insists in filling these positions from the outside or promote from within then the Board has the prerogative to eliminate positions from the current budget,” the plan states.

The principals should be selected by May 1, according to the plan. The plan also stipulates that 14 teachers from Carrillo and Price elementaries will be transferred to Athens, 14 current core teachers from Zamora and Dwight middle schools be transferred to Kazen, and eight core teachers at South San High School be transferred to West Campus High School.

The enrollment estimates for West Campus High School are still in flux. Even with 195 eighth-grade students zoned to attend West Campus next school year, trustees are currently planning to open West Campus in its initial year as a supplemental campus that would just offer academic programs to cut back on costs from offering extra programs such as electives or career and technical education.

South San High School Principal Lee Hernandez told trustees that of the 195 eighth-grade students zoned to attend West Campus, close to 160 have indicated they want to take advantage of programs that would not be offered at West Campus next year like band, career and technical education, an early college high school program, or a health sciences academy.

Prado suggested that West Campus could potentially open with 10th-grade students who weren’t interested in electives or other offerings specific to South San High School.

Thursday’s approved plan estimates the total cost to reopen the three campuses is estimated to be a little more than $6 million. The four-trustee majority also voted to expand the Budget Committee’s oversight to oversee the proposal to reopen the schools.

South San Antonio High School students attend a school board meeting with signs to bring awareness to mental health issues.
South San Antonio High School students attend a March school board meeting with signs to bring awareness to mental health issues. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Mental health needs at a ‘crisis stage’

In previous board meetings, some community members have asked that more resources be devoted to mental health services rather than reopening the closed schools.

Trustees responded Thursday by requesting a presentation on the mental health needs of South San students. Susan Arciniega oversees mental health services throughout the district and explained what students are up against.

“These issues [students face] were traumatic [to hear] as an adult,” Arciniega said. “I can’t even imagine, … how difficult it must have been. I know we had a student who had to witness the [murder] of his parents and his family. No one should ever have to do that.

“I need more help. I need more staff. We’re not here 365 days and that concerns me. … We are not at a preventative stage. We are at an intervention, crisis stage.”

Charlie Gallardo, the lead counselor at the high school, told trustees the district would benefit greatly from social workers. Gallardo stated that the current ratio of counselors to students at the high school is about 500 to 1. Some of the middle schools, which have more than 600 students, have only one counselor.

Calling the “brave children” who came to the last meeting, the “elephant in the room,” trustee Rodriguez said now that he was aware of the issues, he would be committed to fixing the problem.

Trustees discussed establishing a mental health services facility at several vacant district facilities to provide services to students through partnerships with non-profit organizations that specialize in mental health services.

The board also responded to requests from Councilman Rey Saldaña to partner with the city and use municipal funds toward a district community center that could also serve students with mental health resources. Previously, the four-trustee majority voted to not entertain Saldaña’s proposal to house the center at Kazen.

On Thursday, the four-trustee majority voted to offer the councilman a parcel of school district property adjacent to the school to establish a future community center.

When proposing the idea, Saldaña frequently referenced a partnership he previously forged with Southwest ISD wherein the district and the city contributed funds to create a natatorium.

Prado said she wants the same deal for South San; she would rather have the district contribute land than a building, as Southwest ISD did.

“Our contention is if [Saldaña] is sincere about helping these kids with mental health services, then we are going to provide him exactly what Southwest ISD provided him,” Prado said in an interview prior to the meeting. “Southwest partnered with him and gave him land. … We are going to be stewards [of the district] and offer five to eight acres of land, which are located adjacent to Kazen Middle School and partner with the city.”

Reached Wednesday night by phone, Saldaña stated that he became aware of the idea only when he read the board meeting agenda.

Trustee Louis Ybarra called it an “opportunity lost” for the district because whereas South San was initially the frontrunner for the opportunity, South San “passed that opportunity up” and lost their spot in line to partner with the city.

“If the city wants to turn their back, then they can turn their back,” trustee Rodriguez said. “It piques my curiosity, that why wasn’t the initial proposal [just for our vacant land]? Why was the initial proposal hand me over your $40 million asset [of Kazen]?”

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.