When the South San Independent School District board reconvenes Wednesday night, the embattled district leadership will continue to operate under a cloud of suspicion of mismanagement. Three months after the Texas Education Agency appointed her conservator to supervise the district, Judith Castleberry said she’s still troubled by the district’s dynamics.

Castleberry spoke at a meeting of South San Kids First, a grassroots education advocacy group, on Tuesday night at Palo Alto College.

“The state of the district is problematic. There are issues that must be addressed,” Castleberry said.

Councilman Rey Saldana (D4) and TEA appointed conservator Dr. Judy Castleberry sit in attendance as a student from South San ISD speaks. Photo by Scott Ball.
Councilman Rey Saldana (D4) and TEA appointed conservator Dr. Judy Castleberry sit in attendance as a student from South San ISD speaks. Photo by Scott Ball.

Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) and others formed the group earlier this year with hopes that South San community members – students, educators, officials, parents, elected leaders, business people – could work together toward solutions in their district.

Around 80 people attended the meeting on Tuesday night, about half the attendance of the first South San Kids First meeting. This smaller group was no less attentive to the sobering assessment of South San ISD, and no less committed to finding solutions.

Those who live and work in the district have expressed concerns over fiscal mismanagement, governance problems, and a culture of fear of speaking out on these and other matters. Castleberry’s remarks confirmed many of their observations.

Castleberry was critical of the school board for recently postponing action on possible corrective measures, including some cost-cutting costs, as well realigning attendance boundaries, a vital action given that student occupancy rates range 42% to 77% districtwide.

“There are a lot of empty seats in classrooms that cost a lot of money to cool and clean,” she said.

Castleberry is also still worried about the board’s working relationship with Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra. In one recent board meeting, trustees rejected Saavedra’s recommendation to terminate a specific faculty member. Castleberry made a directive to reverse that board decision, and the superintendent’s original recommendation to fire the faculty member is going through.

“I do believe students deserve the very best teachers we can provide them,” Castleberry said, to some applause. “It’s another example of the board not supporting the administration.”

This is one of a handful of directives Castleberry felt she has had to issue to help spur the board and district toward more progressive actions.

Some of those directives have been defied.

During its May 2 regular meeting, Castleberry directed the board to discuss the issue of stipends for teachers with master’s degrees. When the board chose to ignore the instruction, she made yet another directive to compel the board to discuss the issue Wednesday night.

Other behaviors, while not in violation of any law or directive, have raised red flags for Castleberry. Trustees have been observed congregating in the district central office parking lot immediately after a board meeting. If they were discussing district business, which is unclear, it would be a violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act.

Additionally, the district issued a request for proposals for a new auditing firm. Two firms responded: neither are in San Antonio, and neither submitted a complete proposal.

“It troubles me that firms in San Antonio don’t want to do business with South San,” she said.

Castleberry has spent the last few weeks trying to improve the district’s governing policies, including appropriate evaluations for the superintendent, and better management of funds. According to the conservator, more than 40 student club accounts are not receiving proper management, and some money has gone missing over time.

“The clubs will still have access to their money, but they will be under tighter control and audited,” Castleberry added.

Despite these and other reported problems with district leadership, Kids First wants to acknowledge the good things happening and promote ideas to improve South San.

Community members fill a meeting space at the Palo Alto College library. Photo by Scott Ball.
Community members fill a meeting space at the Palo Alto College library. Photo by Scott Ball. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Saldaña said the entire community must come together for the betterment of current and future students.

“What we want to do is empower the entire community’s voice. If you have power in your voice, we want you to engage it,” Saldaña said.

Saldaña introduced Moises Hernandez, a Zamora Middle School eighth-grader, whom he has been mentoring. Hernandez recalled the support he received from family, friends, classmates and others last summer following his father’s death. Hernandez said he learned inner strength from his father’s actions in life, and from all that he has been taught thus far in South San ISD.

“He’s gone but not everything went with him,” Hernandez said of his late father. “His soul, legacy, stayed with us. He taught us to help people, to put others before yourself.”

Hernandez said he was proud to attend Tuesday’s meeting and to be active with Kids First, hoping to exchange ideas and bits of wisdom with other community members.

“I’m not here to fight just for my family, but for these children and the next generation,” Hernandez said. “I’m fighting for this school district.”

South San student Moises Hernandez addresses the audience with a personal story. Photo by Scott Ball.
South San student Moises Hernandez addresses the audience with a personal story. Photo by Scott Ball.

Araceli Garcia is a South San High School senior who has accepted a scholarship to Stanford University, following in Saldaña’s educational footsteps. She briefly outlined how the themes of transparency, culture/attitude and student achievement emerged from the first Kids First meeting.

Garcia said it is troubling that parents, employees and other community members feel they cannot openly express their concerns without fear of vocal retaliation from others in the district. She also spoke of how all community members have a role to play in ensuring students are ready for college or some other postsecondary education.

“We don’t want to be just be on par with benchmarks, we want to meet and exceed them,” Garcia added.

The attendees broke up into four groups to further discuss improve transparency, culture/attitude and student achievement. Moderators saw common themes emerge:

  • Parents, students and educators should better engage each other and district and campus leaders.
  • Adults in the community should be positive role models by promoting a culture of high expectations.
  • Teachers’ and staffs’ resources and attention should be spread across all students as evenly as possible.
  • Technology can be an effective educational tool. Obstacles to using technology in the classroom – especially lack of access at home and necessary teacher training – should be overcome.
  • Promote trades and other options for students who may not be interested in college, and work with local businesses to provide apprenticeship opportunities.
  • The school board must be more open with the public concerning its decision-making process and rebuild trust with the community.

School board President Connie Prado, in one breakout group, agreed that highly involved family members can benefit their children while they are in school.

South San ISD President Connie Prado listens to a speaker during a break-out session. Photo by Scott Ball.
South San ISD President Connie Prado listens to a speaker during a break-out session. Photo by Scott Ball.

“It’s not just the Aracelias and Moiseses. If we have more educated parents, they’ll help their kids succeed,” said Prado.

State Rep. John Lujan (R-118), whose district includes South San, told his group members the school board, administrators, and teachers should be proactive and instill a coordinated theme of high achievement to which students could aspire.

“Kids have to believe in it, the adults should be believe in it,” he added.

It is unclear how long South San ISD will have a conservator or whether the TEA will choose to temporarily replace the current school board with a board of managers. In the meantime, Kids First plans to have a daylong event this summer for community members to flesh out their ideas.

Saldaña later told the Rivard Report he appreciates Castleberry for being a “pseudo-leader who pulls no punches and has an allegiance only to high performance.”

Out of adversity has come a new level of community collaboration, he said. “This the most grassroots idea, to have the community come together and ask what they expect.”

Texas Rep. John Lujan (D118) listens in during a break-out session following the town hall meeting. Photo by Scott Ball.
Texas Rep. John Lujan (D118) listens in during a break-out session following the town hall meeting. Photo by Scott Ball. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report
https://rivardreport.wildapricot.org

Top Image: South San ISD President Connie Prado speaks during a break-out session with dignitaries and community leaders.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

Related Stories:

‘South San Kids First’ Seeks to Reform Troubled School District

Stewart Elementary: A Case Study for Change

Martinez Offers Glimpse of SAISD’s Changing Academic Strategies

Rey Saldaña’s Journey Home: South San to Stanford and Back

Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.