Southside ISD might be the latest Bexar County school district to fall into the hands of State management. A report from a special investigation unit of the Texas Education Agency (TEA) recommended replacing the elected board of trustees with an appointed board of managers.

The TEA report cites board dysfunction similar to that observed in South San ISD and Edgewood ISD, both of which are now subject to State intervention. South San ISD has a conservator overseeing and guiding its board, and Edgewood ISD now has a board of managers in place.

A preliminary report from the special investigation, which began in May, claimed that all board members interviewed agreed the board should be dissolved. The trustees denied this claim, and the report was amended to say that three board members felt that the board should be dissolved.

Lowering the districts accreditation is also recommended in the report. Superintendent Mark Eads wrote a response to the report addressing some of the findings and assuring the TEA that “there have been many positive steps taken to ‘right the ship’ in the areas of school business/finance and academics.”

The May 2015 school board election flipped former Superintendent Ricardo R. Vela’s support on the board and led to his ouster. This ushered in a year of fractious infighting, which the TEA report claims is confirmed by all board members. In March 2016 the San Antonio Express-News reported that a board faction known as the “Gonzales faction” –made up of Board President Julian Gonzales, Vice President Kenneth Bouldin, Secretary Johnny Cantu, and trustee Manuel Sandoval – had been named in lawsuits filed by district employees claiming intimidation and retaliation.

Three interim superintendents rotated through the district over the course of the year until Eads was hired on May 9, 2016.

Eads accepted the position with full knowledge of the TEA’s pending investigation, and said he felt “called” to help the district through what would be a tough time.

“They knew it was a challenge, they knew there was a lot of work. But he (Eads) could see how he could fix it,” Public Information Officer Sylvia Rincon said. 

Eads’ primary goal has been keeping the district’s accreditation in tact. To that end he brought in former superintendents from Nacogdoches and Splendora ISDs Fred Hayes and Genese Bell as an executive team to address concerns with curriculum and operations. He has invested heavily in targeted professional development as well.

“His number one goal was to make sure that accreditation didn’t get knocked down,” Rincon said. “We have not been told exactly what that means.”

Whatever “lowered accreditation” means, Eads knows that it will hurt students.

“The community and staff are currently being positively impacted with the recent changes and we need to keep this positive momentum going in the right direction,” Eads wrote in his letter to the TEA.

Eads’ letter spells out his efforts to work within the district to remedy all financial and operational issues that would affect accreditation. He hopes to put a bond before the voters soon, and does not want a lowered accreditation to hurt its chances of passing, especially since he has begun to address all of the issues within his purview.

He does not want to see the students pay the price for the alleged board misconduct. He knows that the district has problems, but wants to become an example of how to come back from dysfunction.

“He is willing to cooperate with the TEA to the fullest extent,” Rincon said. “The attitude is that this should be a model for a turnaround district.”

The actions of the board – Eads’ employers – are outside his purview, and district representatives declined to comment on them. 

The report also cited instances of misuse of the board position by two board members, Sandoval and Loren Brewer. Complaints against the two board members range from intimidation to interference with construction.

One district employee claims that Sandoval tried to intimidate her when she refused to release information about his son’s grades to his then-common law wife. The teacher claims that Sandoval said, “Do you know who I am?”

Sandoval also allegedly interfered with construction of an ROTC drill pad, ordering changes that raised the price of the project by $15,000. Motions surrounding the increase and the payment of the contractor were made or seconded by Sandoval. The district director of operations reported that Sandoval “pretty much ran the project.”

The report also claims that Sandoval inappropriately tried to influence personnel decisions, including a pay raise for his common law wife, an SISD employee. 

According to the report, Brewer disrupted school sign-in protocols and caused a scene in front of students. The report further states that the encounter ended with Brewer saying, “I don’t need an escort. I’m a board member. I don’t need a badge. I can go anywhere.”

Concern was also raised about Brewer’s absence from most of the board meetings between January and May of 2016. In its reply to the preliminary report, the board said that Brewer had remained engaged in board business in spite of health problems that kept him from attending board meetings. He did however attend the National School Board Association conference in Boston in April, a travel expense of more than $3,000 for the district. The district responded that this was a necessary training for Brewer, that he conducted valuable board business while there, and that he attended five of the next six board meetings.

One of the special investigation findings has been turned over to law enforcement for possible investigation. A breech in procurement protocol ended in a $95,700 invoice for concrete installation at the SISD football stadium. The district was unable to produce proof that a bidding process had been followed in awarding the contract, and one correspondence shows that the contractor had quoted $35,000 for the project. 

In spite of the responses by the district, the TEA special investigators stuck by their recommendation for a board of managers to replace the school board. The district now awaits the TEA’s decision on how to proceed.

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.