A recommendation to close four South San Antonio Independent School District schools in an effort to avert a looming financial crisis was rejected by trustees during an emotional meeting Wednesday night.

Superintendent Henry Yzaguirre had recommended closing Athens Elementary School, Kindred Elementary School, Kazen Middle School and West Campus High School, but trustees voted 5-2 on each recommendation to keep the schools open.

West Campus had been closed before, in 2007, because of flood damage. In 2017, Athens and Kazen were shut because of declines in enrollment. All three were reopened in a controversial vote by trustees in 2019.

During the “Citizens to be Heard” portion of the meeting, residents asked the board not to close the schools, saying it was not in the best interest of the students to do so, and that it would be a hardship for some.

Before discussion on the proposed closings began, Abelardo “Abe” Saavedra, a former South San superintendent who was appointed by the Texas Education Agency to monitor the troubled district, laid out the dire financial situation to trustees.

“The last couple of years, South San has had major … major holes in their budget,” said Saavedra. “In ’21-’22, you plugged that hole by taking $8 million from ESSER money that was provided by the federal government because of the COVID situation. Most other districts used that ESSER money to educate their children.”

ESSER stands for Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, a pandemic-era relief program administered by the Texas Education Agency. Districts and schools may use these funds in a variety of ways, including providing wraparound services to students and hiring and training teachers.

Saavedra said the $8 million came out of $40 million in ESSER money the district was awarded. This fiscal year, $9 million more will be used to plug the current deficit, he said, leaving the district’s ESSER funds almost completely depleted.

“There is no more ESSER money to plug budget deficits,” Saavedra said.

Board President Ernesto Arrellano Jr. reiterated Saavedra’s analysis in remarks to his colleagues.

“If we don’t do anything, we have about a year and a half before we start running out of money in the district,” Arrellano said.

Despite Saavedra’s earlier statement about being encouraged by how well the board had been working together over the past several months, tension arose before Arrellano finished his remarks when another trustee told him to “wrap it up.”

According to Yzaguirre, the district would save $9 million a year if the four campuses were closed. He added that if the recommendations were approved, no staff cuts would be required as employees would be carried over and staffing would be balanced through attrition.

“These recommendations are not to punish our community. … And they are definitely not easy decisions to make,” Yzaguirre said. “However, we can’t afford our emotions to trump logic. They are recommendations to get our district back on our feet financially so that we can afford the academic opportunities our students need and to be more competitive in the compensation of our staff.”

After the first presentation on Athens Elementary, District 6 trustee Cyndi Ramirez, who won election to the board in November, complained about hearing about the recommendations for the first time and having little time to consider them.

“All I ask that a work session would have been great, you know, so I can learn a little bit more what’s going on,” Ramirez said. “It could have been public. You all could have been here. We could have all heard the same thing at the same time.”

Stacey Alderete, who represents District 7, complained about the lack of community involvement concerning the proposed closures before Wednesday, saying that she anticipated a room filled with people angry and in shock because she, too, felt that way.

“To put this item on an agenda without informing the public, without letting them know, without letting them have an opportunity to speak, to come up with suggestions and ideas, is disgusting to me,” Alderete said.

District 3 trustee Homer Flores accused Arrellano and Manuel Lopez, who joined the board after winning the District 1 seat in November, and serves as vice president, of secretly sneaking agenda items to close schools in a board meeting. Flores called for an end to the board’s leadership.

“We should have been having meetings prior to this, with community input. If we are to make hard decisions, we should be making these decisions together,” Flores said.

After trustees commented on the first recommendation, Arrellano refuted the accusations of wrong-doing made against him and predicted a state takeover.

“We are going to force, at some point, the state to take action with the actions that we are taking or not taking here,” Arrellano said.

After each presentation, Flores, Ramirez, Alderete, District 4 trustee Shirley Ibarra and District 5 trustee Abel Martinez Jr., who replaced longtime Trustee Connie Prado, voted no on Yzaguirre’s four recommendations. Arellano and Lopez voted for them.

Sandra Santos

Sandra Santos

Sandra Santos is audience editor at the San Antonio Report.