The interim superintendent of the South San Antonio Independent School District possibly violated the Texas Education Code by completing a task that board trustees had not accomplished because they’ve failed to meet since mid-January.

Interim Superintendent Henry Yzaguirre authorized transferring money from the district’s general fund to its self-insurance fund to cover a payment that was due Tuesday. Transferring the funds is the board’s duty and not the superintendent’s, said Abelardo Saavedra, the state-appointed monitor overseeing the board.

South San’s school board has not met in six weeks because too few board members have attended the meetings in person to constitute a quorum, stalling district operations that are the board’s responsibility. At least four trustees must be present in person to meet.

Trustees are scheduled to meet Thursday to ratify the movement of
$1 million to the insurance fund. But the education code states that a school board must amend the budget before spending the money, said Joy Baskin, director of legal services at the Texas Association of School Boards.

“To fail to have a budget amendment in place before money is dispersed could certainly violate the education code and potentially even be a criminal violation,” she said.

The Texas Education Agency, which is investigating the board, declined to comment on the status of the inquiry. The agency appointed Saavedra in September after it closed another investigation into similar problems between the board and superintendent.

At least two trustees said they would attend the next called meeting in person if board President Gilbert Rodriguez places an item to reorganize the board on the agenda. Trustees Connie Prado and Shirley Ibarra requested the item be placed on the agenda, but Rodriguez has not fulfilled their requests.

The board reorganization item is not on Thursday’s agenda. The only items on the agenda are approving the transfer of money into the insurance fund and other budget amendments.

In December, trustees voted to elect new board officers, naming Rodriguez as president. Ernesto Arrellano Jr. previously served as board president.

Board policy states that the deadline for trustees to place items on the agenda is two weeks before the meeting and that the president cannot remove items from the agenda requested by trustees without their permission. The superintendent drafts agendas, but the board president has final approval of the postings.

Baskin said cooperation among board members and the superintendent is written into the education code and that the role of the board is the oversight of management. The superintendent’s duty is the actual management of the district.

“It’s an unusual thing to see written in law, the idea of cooperation and an expectation of shared duties, but that’s honestly what is written into the education code,” she said.

Unlike other elected officials, trustees are charged to work together on behalf of the school district and the children it serves, Baskin said. In the law, the name “trustee” captures that responsibility.

“They hold in trust for the children of their community the assets and the well-being of the district, so that idea of performing a public trust is just baked into the name,” she said. “They are charged to work as a body corporate, even if they come from single member districts. They give voice to that area of the community without having that be their sole factor for decision-making.”

Prado said she and Ibarra submitted the request to place the board reorganization item on the agenda more than a month ago. She said Rodriguez not putting the item on the agendas and publicly disrespecting fellow board members has kept trustees from attending meetings in person.

At the Jan. 19 meeting — the last time the board met — Arrellano abruptly left three hours into the meeting because of a family emergency. He later said he got a call that half of his house lost electricity on a night when temperatures fell below freezing, and he rushed to Home Depot for supplies.

After Arrellano left, Rodriguez recognized himself, despite the fact that the board’s attorney said that the board lacked a quorum and must end the meeting. Rodriguez called for the resignation of Arrellano, Prado and Ibarra, who told Rodriguez that he was “out of line.” Rodriguez then threatened to have Ibarra removed from the meeting, which she was attending virtually.

“It’s a crying damn shame that these people want to play these political games,” he said. “All of you should resign because you’re not here for the kids.”

When Ibarra attempted to respond to Rodriguez, he had her video feed removed from the meeting. He then continued to lambast his fellow trustees.

Rodriguez did not respond to a request for comment, nor did Ibarra or trustee Stacey Alderete.

The continued lack of board quorums has disrupted other district operations. Without the board’s approval, Yzaguirre has been unable to hire a new chief academic officer, human resources director, facilities director and communications director, according to Saavedra’s January report to the TEA.

The board also hasn’t discussed how to proceed with suspended Superintendent Marc Puig, so South San has continued to pay two superintendents since December. South San has paid roughly $121,777 to Puig and Yzaguirre since Dec. 6.

Six meetings have been called since Jan. 19, including one posted for Jan. 27. Rodriguez knew before the meeting that trustee Gina Villagomez would not be able to attend and that trustees Arrellano, Prado and Ibarra would attend virtually, according to Saavedra’s report. Despite knowing there would be no quorum, Rodriguez didn’t cancel the meeting, causing vendors to travel to the district and employees to extend their workdays by several hours.

Both Prado and Arrellano said it’s the board president’s duty to establish a quorum, not individual trustees. Prado said she hasn’t attended in person because she recently had hand surgery and worries about catching COVID-19. She also doesn’t want Rodriguez to criticize her in public again.

“I’ve been on the board 24 years, and never have I seen it this bad,” she said. “Who wants to go to a meeting knowing you’re going to get blasted by the board president?”

Saavedra rejected Prada’s reasoning and said it is every board member’s responsibility to meet to take care of district business.

“It’s a political issue. The board is divided. Three board members support one side of the political issue, and four support the other side,” he said. “I’m not going to absolve anyone that responsibility.”

Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum is the San Antonio Report's education reporter.