San Antonio’s business and city leaders say the upheaval in Southside school districts could have a harmful impact on the economic prospects and growth of the area.

In the last three years, the State of Texas took control of two districts with campuses south of U.S. Highway 90, eyed a takeover in a third, and opened an investigation into another. Amid this turmoil, the membership of the South San Antonio Chamber of Commerce saw such a need for change that it identified public education reform as its No. 1 goal in 2019.

“We do think and believe that teachers and administrators that are hired to educate our kids, every day they show up and try their best,” said Al Arreola, president and CEO of the South SA Chamber. “We felt that a lot of their hard work was being tainted by the perception of politics because of the boards.”

Poorly functioning school boards caused the Texas Education Agency to remove elected trustees in Edgewood and Southside ISDs in 2016 and 2017, and the agency announced plans to do the same in Harlandale this summer. The Harlandale board is in limbo as it awaits an appeal of the TEA’s sanction. The TEA opened an investigation into South San ISD in April and could enforce similar sanctions depending on its findings.

Together, the four districts are responsible for the education of close to 40,000 young San Antonians, with more than 82 percent classified as economically disadvantaged. Some business leaders have spoken out about what Leo Gomez, president and CEO of the Brooks redevelopment project, called “shenanigans on the South Side.” Describing what he called a “lack of focus on student success” related to “crazy politics of the board,” San Antonio Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Richard Perez said South San “doesn’t seem to be moving the ball very well.”

But even with unprecedented State involvement in local schools, city officeholders and some state legislative representatives remain mostly quiet about the tumult, saying they recognize the importance of school district performance in the growth of a community but hesitate to state definitively whether stronger state action is necessary.

The Rivard Report contacted each state representative, state senator, City Council member, and county commissioner representing parts of the school districts in which state education officials are conducting investigations or have already intervened.

Few were willing to call for stronger state intervention in the city’s troubled school districts. Only State Sen. José Menéndez (D-San Antonio) urged a state takeover in South San. The longtime state politician said he believes his responsibility is to the children and families of his district who expect a quality education.

“That’s why I can’t just sit by and not say anything,” Menéndez said. “I have a responsibility because of the negative impact going on for the families and especially the children who are in those districts through no fault of their own.”

County Commissioner Chico Rodriguez (Pct. 1) did not return messages requesting  comment, and Commissioner Justin Rodriguez (Pct. 2) and State Rep. Ina Minjarez (D-San Antonio) declined to be interviewed. 

City, county leaders avoid school district conflicts

In 2012, former Mayor Julián Castro made headlines when he attended a Harlandale meeting to protest the departure of Superintendent Robert Jaklich. The district chief planned to leave the district for Victoria ISD amid reports of board infighting.

Former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro

“Certain Harlandale trustees made a huge mistake in driving out Superintendent Robert Jaklich,” Castro wrote on his Facebook page. “I wonder if they realized how badly they have shortchanged Harlandale’s students.”

During his two-and-a-half terms as mayor, Castro weighed in regularly on education issues. He endorsed candidates in the 2011 San Antonio ISD board election and called then-Commissioner of Education Michael Williams to request an investigation into South San ISD in 2013, according to media reports.

Since then, city leaders have mostly shied away from speaking out about district politics and how turmoil on school boards may be affecting education outcomes in a city where only 25.8 percent of residents ages 25 or older have obtained a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to 2018 census data.

The reluctance to weigh in on school board decisions is not because local leaders discount student outcomes or district governance as an important factor in economic growth, City Council members said.

“What happens at the school board level – positive or negative – absolutely impacts what we can do at a City level, and also it could be one of the game-changers,” Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) noted last week. 

Viagran’s point about school districts hits home for Grant Lopez, board chairman of the San Antonio Board of Realtors. He said the first question a family asks a real estate agent when searching for a new home is related to the nearby schools.

Families often look up the schools’ ratings prior to visiting homes, Lopez said, adding that many prospective buyers also search online for information about a school district in local news coverage.

Viagran’s district includes Harlandale ISD, which soon could be under the control of a state-appointed board. The councilwoman declined to comment on whether she would support TEA intervention in Harlandale.

Harlandale board members at the public hearing regarding the TEA Special Investigation of HISD on Aug. 1.

Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4), whose district includes Southwest and South San Antonio ISDs, said she would support the TEA if the state agency decided to step in at South San but also put forward the possibility of alternatives to a state takeover. 

“Whether TEA is the perfect organization [to come in] or not, I don’t know,” she said, suggesting that a mentorship program with a university also could be a potential answer.

Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5), who represents residents of Edgewood ISD, called education outcomes the No. 1 indicator for community success. She said City leaders often won’t comment on school district matters because they don’t have any say in approving a school system’s budget.

“A lot of us do chime in on the fact that our schools are some of the schools [that] are underperforming, but given the fact that we have no control over it, we would just be venting unnecessarily on people who have a lot of pressure on them,” Gonzales said.

However, city leaders often comment on federal or State government action and regularly approve resolutions calling for specific actions. For instance, in mid-August, City Council unanimously passed a resolution calling for state and federal governments to address gun violence.

Like many of his City Council colleagues, Nirenberg has stayed out of the debate over school district governance.

Last week, when Nirenberg was asked directly whether he would support state intervention in Harlandale or South San ISDs, he hedged, saying “I hope that this is a conversation that [TEA] will have with the community before it [a takeover] is executed.”

“I am interested in what the City can do, in what I can do as mayor to help bring stability and bring a voice of parents and educators who want to see positive change in a more comprehensive way come to our community,” Nirenberg said, without giving specifics on what the City’s role could look like.

While mayors rarely use their bully pulpit to comment on school district affairs, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner publicly criticized the Houston ISD board last year for scrambling to replace an interim superintendent with another former district leader without any notice to the public. He called the board’s actions “unacceptable” and said people had “no tolerance for bad behavior,” according to reports from the Houston Chronicle.

The Chronicle reported this September that TEA officials recommended Houston ISD’s trustees be replaced with a state-appointed board.

State leaders take firm stances

Republican Sen. Pete Flores’ district includes all of Harlandale ISD and 91 percent of South San. He and Menéndez wrote to the TEA in early April, asking the State agency to install a conservator, who can override board votes, in South San.

“I don’t have a personal relationship with any of these board members affected, which makes my decision cleaner,” Flores said. “I’m an ex-peace officer, so I look at things from that direction and of course it is like the saying for district attorneys – their job is not to convict you but to see if justice is done.” 

Menéndez represents the remaining 9 percent of South San that Flores’ district doesn’t include. Last week, he elevated his call for State intervention in South San, telling the Rivard Report that he believes replacing the board of trustees with a state-appointed board is merited.

Democratic State Reps. Leo Pacheco and Philip Cortez represent most of Harlandale and South San Antonio ISDs.

Cortez’s district includes 72 percent of South San. He believes the district’s voters should be the ones to deal with any conflict at the board level, Cortez said Monday.

“I do read the articles that are written about the school district,” Cortez said, “and there does seem to be some conflict, but ultimately the residents have the final authority with how they take this news.”

The South San Antonio Independent School District Board of Trustees

Pacheco questioned how the state could justify replacing Harlandale’s seven-member board when three new board members have taken the oath of office since TEA’s preliminary investigative findings were released.

“We have four highly respected Latinas serving on this board,” said Pacheco, referring to Harlandale trustees Elaine Anaya-Ortiz, Christine Carrillo, Norma Cavazos, and Elizabeth Limon. “How can you justify removing them for a board of managers, unelected, when these four ladies are highly respected and did nothing wrong?”

Rep. Roland Gutierrez (D-San Antonio), who represents small portions of South San, Harlandale, and Edgewood, pointed to a bill he filed in 2013 that led to a study on school district consolidation. The study found that consolidating an entire county’s school districts would raise costs for school systems. Consolidating all districts within a county was not his intent, Gutierrez said, adding that he would want to study consolidation among just a few districts.

Gutierrez expressed interest in filing another consolidation bill next session, but would want to look at forming the legislation with the support of Bexar County’s entire Austin delegation and the business community’s backing.

He may gain support from other education officials; longtime SAISD trustee James Howard stepped off the board after two decades in May, announcing he would devote his retirement to advocating for consolidation of some of Bexar County’s districts.

“You’re having these petty fights at the same time kids are going to school and need boards to be focused,” Howard said in May. “You’ve got different little infightings where one district is being investigated, and two are under boards of management. Well what does that tell you? It doesn’t make any sense. All the time we are talking about accountability and the need for [improved] student achievement, and yet we aren’t doing anything about it.”

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.