South San Antonio Independent School District trustees voted Aug. 21 to cut back on a partnership with Communities in Schools, a nonprofit organization that places social workers in schools at reduced cost to school systems.

The board trimmed $325,000 from the amount previously budgeted for CIS, citing a decline in enrollment and looming financial hardship stemming from the economic effects of the pandemic. The cuts remove nine positions for case managers who worked with students to provide one-on-one counseling, improve attendance, encourage graduation, and address the reasons for disruptive behavior.

Trustees on Aug. 21 considered four possible agreements with CIS, choosing the leanest plan. District officials chose which campuses would retain CIS staffers based on the school’s academic performance, attendance, and student behavioral issues.

South San will pay Communities in Schools (CIS) $210,000 for six staff members who will serve seven campuses. One staffer will split time between Athens and Carrillo elementary schools.

Trustees cut all district-funded CIS staff from six elementaries, Zamora Middle School, and South San Antonio High School, causing concern from some of the district’s older students who say they have benefited from the nonprofit’s services during their time as students, especially during the pandemic. One CIS staffer will continue to work with just with teen parents at the high school, but this position is paid for by the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District.

“I feel like it’s very important that we have those resources, especially since we are going through a pandemic,” high school senior Evany Gonzalez said. “Being inside and on the computer and not having social interaction that school gave us, it really messes with your mental health and makes you feel worse. CIS was able to help a bunch of kids that I know with setting up therapy appointments through Zoom and making sure that families had the food they needed.”

South San senior Evany Gonzalez says CIS has helped several people she knows. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

CIS also helped senior Natalie Moncada in recent weeks. During the pandemic, staffers reached out to Moncada and her family to see if they needed help with food, offering gift cards for groceries or deliveries from food bank distributions. The nonprofit also collaborated with other organizations to provide 58 South San families with one-time gifts of $500 per family. Moncada’s family was one of the recipients.

“If it weren’t for them, I don’t know how I would have made it through this pandemic,” Moncada said. “We were so appreciative of CIS and now that we found out that it is going to be taken away I think, ‘What about the other students that won’t have CIS for that help?'”

Communities in Schools has partnered with South San for more than two decades and the high school has always had services, CIS Executive Director Jessica Weaver said.

Before last week’s vote to cut CIS services, Superintendent Marc Puig told trustees that in recent years, the district’s enrollment has sharply decreased but the amount the district spent on CIS increased.

From 2018-19 to 2019-20, student enrollment decreased by more than 400 students, but trustees voted to increase spending on CIS from $300,000 to $535,000, adding positions to an additional five campuses.

At the time of last year’s vote, trustee Louis Ybarra Jr. remarked that SSAISD had been trying to expand CIS into every campus for many years, calling the partnership “a real help to our community.” Ybarra is no longer on the board.

While trustees last week echoed this gratitude for CIS services, they voiced concerns about reining in costs at a time of economic uncertainty and declining student numbers. However, the district’s enrollment has been declining since 2013-14.

“We have to look at both sides of it – the impact but also the financial aspect of it,” said trustee Stacey Alderete, who recounted how CIS had supported her family during hard times. “We’re not going to see what COVID is going to do to us this year [financially] because [funding] is already allocated this year. We are going to have those effects the following year so we need to be financially responsible.”

It’s unclear why trustees felt enrollment concerns necessitated a cut this year when the board has made moves that cost significantly more than the amount cut from CIS.

For instance, during 2018-19, when enrollment decreased by about 200 students, trustees voted to invest $6 million in reopening three campuses that had previously been shuttered because of low enrollment: Athens Elementary, Kazen Middle School, and West Campus High School. In May, trustees voted to invest an additional $1.2 million in West Campus renovations to expand the classroom capacity and update the practice gym.

At a Saturday budget meeting, Puig reflected on how the facilities expenditures depleted the district’s fund balance, which acts as a savings account. State officials recommend districts keep at least two months of operating expenses in their fund balances.

The fund balance “will be less than last year’s audited fund balance, no doubt,” Puig said, noting that the account contained close to $30 million last year. “There were some significant investments made this year from [the] fund balance – good investments, sound investments in facilities – so we know it’s going to be considerably less.”

However, Puig said, the fund balance’s new total would remain above the two-month threshold.

In interviews with the San Antonio Report, some students questioned budget decisions like the reopenings and the West Campus expansion in the face of cuts to social services through CIS.

“It doesn’t make sense that they would cut back [on CIS] when they put more money into all these other places that we didn’t ask them to,” Gonzalez said.

Puig said student services would not suffer, citing the Care Zone, a centralized mental health services hub that launched last fall, as a resource for some of the services provided by CIS.

“Nothing is lost. This is simply addition by subtraction or reallocating our resources in a way that we still provide the services,” he said.

However, high school students fear that a centralized resource located in a building near Athens Elementary won’t provide the same level of support as was available with on-campus CIS staff.

“It’s more accessible being at the high school than it is at Care Zone because we would need our own transportation to get to the Care Zone,” Gonzalez said. “We would also need a referral to go to the Care Zone and get the help.”

The South San board will vote on a budget for the 2020-21 school year on Monday.

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.