Despite the state’s recent takeover of the district, the Southside ISD board voted Thursday night to place a $59.75 million bond on the May 6 ballot. Board members took the step knowing they will not be the ones to implement the bond.
In December, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) determined that board misconduct and dysfunction necessitated state takeover of the district in the form of a conservator and board of managers. In addition to continual infighting among board members, the agency also cited instances in which two board members, Manuel Sandoval and Loren Brewer, misused their positions. Complaints against the two members range from intimidation to interference with construction.
The district unsuccessfully appealed the original findings of TEA’s special investigation that began in May 2016. After learning the agency’s final decision in December, the board voted 5-2 not to challenge the TEA takeover in court.
At the Thursday board meeting, residents were introduced to Velia Minjarez, the state conservator. Applications for the board of managers will be accepted through March 1. It is possible that by the time district voters go to the polls to decide whether to approve the bond, they will do so with the board of managers, not their elected school board, in place.
“[State takeover] usually goes pretty quickly once we start this process,” TEA spokesperson DeEtta Culbertson said.
Given the allegations of financial mismanagement that contributed to the state takeover, some find the board of managers to be a step in the right direction.
“I’m hearing from community members that they are relieved that the board of managers will be here,” said SISD spokesperson Sylvia Rincon.
The board of managers will be in place for at least two years, and likely longer. By the end of the first two years, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath must issue an end date for state oversight. This timeline will allow consistent management throughout most of the bond implementation. More reassuring to the community is the possibility that current Superintendent Mark Eads could be appointed by TEA to work with the board of managers in his current position.
“We know that there are community members who have expressed that if they were to support the bond, it would be because he’s here,” Rincon said.
TEA is required to appoint a board of managers, then appoint a superintendent. However, the superintendent does not have to be new. While neither the district nor the TEA knows yet who that will be, the district is optimistic about the possibility that it could be Eads.
Minjarez has praised Eads, who has led an effort to get the district on the right track.
“Superintendent Eads is a visionary man who has a vision for the expansion of the district and holding everyone accountable, which is very refreshing,” Minjarez told the San Antonio Express News after the board meeting.
Eads came to the district in May 2016 knowing that TEA action was imminent. In assessing the district’s challenges, he immediately saw the need for consistent leadership to help the district progress.
“They needed stability and leadership,” Eads said. “They needed someone who was committed to being there.”
He was more surprised to find that the district’s three elementary schools and one middle school were operating at capacity. Across the district, facilities were inadequate for a growing student population. Eads had hoped to be able to show a longer trend of improving administrative and academic health before proposing a bond but saw immediate issues that needed to be addressed.
“I uncovered that we are going to have facility needs much sooner than we ever anticipated,” Eads said.
Meanwhile, through staff professional development and character education training for staff and students, Eads sought to establish a “culture of excellence” in the district. It won’t happen overnight, but progress is already starting to show up in the classroom, Eads said. Students are working collaboratively, teachers are focused, and the learning environment is more active and engaged.
While TEA has recognized Eads’ vision and progress, his efforts to keep the district from having its accreditation lowered were ultimately overshadowed by TEA’s assessment of a continuously dysfunctional board. The bond, however, reflects his vision to accommodate projected growth in the district.
“We are optimistic that it will pass, because the children need these facilities,” Rincon said.
SISD serves about 5,000 students and anticipates growing by about 1,000 students over the next few years, with continued housing development occurring in the district. The district has not passed a bond since 2006.
Regardless of the state takeover process, the bond is a critical need, Rincon said.
The bond will allow for the creation of a fine arts center to get the Southside High School band out of the portable where it now rehearses. The district’s growing agriculture program is in need of adequate livestock facilities. High school projects account for $31 million of the bond budget.
Middle school and elementary school projects make up $28,750,000. A new pre-K and kindergarten facility will alleviate crowding pressure down the line so that LaSoya Intermediate can become a traditional middle school for grades 6-8, allowing it to accommodate students from overcrowded Matthey Middle School.
Included in these estimates is an extra $1.6 million to account for unforeseen issues in updating the aging buildings, as well as unexpected spikes in construction costs.
The district will sell bonds incrementally and will not exceed the actual cost of proposed projects, Rincon said. Eads said he is committed to coming in under budget and has pledged not to sell bonds for extra money to fund projects the voters have not approved.
The willingness of the board to propose a bond they will not implement is another auspicious sign, Rincon said.
“They are all working as a team right now,” Rincon added. “When we work together, we can be an example of a turnaround district, and not just come back from this, but become an example of excellence.”
The board voted 5-0 to pursue the bond, with board members Sandoval and Johnny Cantu absent.
SISD is the third San Antonio school district under state control. South San ISD is entering its second year with a conservator in place, and Edgewood ISD came under control of a board of managers in May 2016.
The continued struggle of small, high-poverty districts raises the question of consolidation. San Antonio ISD continues to improve under the leadership of Superintendent Pedro Martinez, and districts on the city’s Northside are thriving. If after years of state oversight, TEA does not feel that a district is capable of independent self-governance, it does have the authority to dissolve the district and pursue consolidation with or annexation by another district. This measure is reserved for situations “far past the point of redemption,” Culbertson said. “That is a decision not reached lightly.”