Jesse Hernandez has been elected along with two others to the Southside ISD board. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

After being overseen by a state-appointed board for more than three years, Southside Independent School District took its next steps toward a return to local control on Tuesday as two new trustees were sworn in.

State Education Commissioner Mike Morath notified Southside ISD on Monday that he had selected Mary Silva and Brenda Nagelhaut-Olivarez to join the state-appointed board as elected trustees. Current board member Jesse Hernandez also will serve as a trustee after being elected in an uncontested race May 1.

Nagelhaut-Olivarez also ran unopposed in this month’s election, while voters elected Silva in 2019. All three trustees will serve until May 2025, according to the district’s website.

Morath initiated the process last year of returning the board to an elected board of trustees from a five-member, state-appointed board of managers. The commissioner suspended Southside’s elected board’s powers in 2017 after an investigation by the Texas Education Agency revealed trustees had violated contract procurement policies and failed to properly govern the district.

In the letter, Morath wrote that the board will return entirely back to elected members in May 2022.

School districts with state-appointed boards of managers continue to hold elections, but those elected generally do not serve on the board until the education commissioner deems it appropriate to appoint them to the board. Morath appointed two elected trustees to the board in 2020 – Maggie Morales and Katie Farias. Their terms end in May 2023.

Five elected trustees now serve on the seven-member board of managers. Morath relieved Dolores Sendejo and Lonna Clinch from the board to make room for the elected trustees. Sendejo will act as the district’s conservator, overseeing Southside’s finances and governance of the district. In that role, Southside ISD must pay her $85 an hour, plus travel expenses.

“This is a new step implemented by the agency to assist in the securing of a smooth transition back to local control. This is not a reflection of concerns specific to this transition, the current or elected boards, or Southside ISD in general,” Morath wrote in his letter to the district.

The trustees were sworn in at Tuesday’s meeting. Board members also voted to make Hernandez board president and Farias vice president. TEA Deputy Commissioner Jeff Cottrill told the board via videoconference that the agency was “pleased with the progress that is taking place in Southside ISD.”

“We can’t help but be very excited for what the future holds for the students of Southside under the new leadership of Superintendent [Rolando] Ramirez over the last year and this continued transition to return Southside ISD back to local control,” he said.

The new board members have backgrounds in education. Silva worked for Southside ISD for 40 years in various roles and retired in 2013. Nagelhaut-Olivarez worked for Edgewood ISD for more than 20 years as an administrator and now works for a school administration software company.

Nagelhaut-Olivarez ran for the school board in 2019 and lost, but friends and family encouraged her not to give up because of her knowledge of how school systems operate. She said she also fell in love with the community and wanted to help help turn around the district.

“Last time, there were a lot of problems with the board,” she said. “The community was really, really upset. They were very angry about the way things were going.”

Now, Nagelhaut-Olivarez sees the potential for growth in Southside ISD and a community that is willing to rally around their schools.

“There still needs to be a lot of work to be done, but good things are happening and I want to be part of that,” she said.

Silva, who grew up on the South Side and graduated from Southside High School, said she ran for the school board because the infighting among the former trustees had trickled down and tarnished teacher and student morale. That has changed with the board of managers.

“Now everyone on the board has a positive attitude,” she said. “We can only go up from here.”

New board president Hernandez, a CPS Energy executive, said he feels privileged to continue serving on the board as an elected member. Morath appointed him to the board of managers in November 2018. Hernandez decided to run for the school board because he wanted to continue the “upward trajectory” of the board, including hiring Ramirez as superintendent.

“We’ve seen some good improvements, and I have no doubt that in the months and years to come we’re going to continue to see great improvements for the district,” he said.

Ramirez said the board of managers and TEA have been supportive of the district in his first year as Southside’s superintendent. The board of managers hired Ramirez in April 2020.

The transition to more local control was welcomed by the district, although the guidance and oversight provided by the TEA is still valued, Ramirez said.

“No one sees it as a problem,” he said. “It’s something that is conducive to what we’re trying to do here in the district, so it’s just an ideal situation where there’s no reason why the district shouldn’t be successful with that type of support.”

Brooke Crum covered education for the San Antonio Report.