SAISD Superintendent Dr. Sylvester Perez emcees the Board Appreciation Ceremony. Photo by Robert Rivard.
SAISD Superintendent Dr. Sylvester Perez emcees the Board Appreciation Ceremony in January 2015. Photo by Robert Rivard.

Second in a two-part series.

Ed Garza, the school board president of San Antonio’s biggest inner city school district, knows how closely tied the future of our public schools is to the future of San Antonio as a city. Garza, who served as San Antonio’s mayor from 2001-05, knows that the inner city schools he attended as a student have been affected by policies that promoted suburban growth and sprawl,  and that even today, the central city lacks the level of public investment necessary to attract greater private investment and help grow the district’s tax base.

He also knows a lot of people who left the central city for the suburbs did it because the schools are better.

Now, as Garza watches a wave of young professionals move into the urban core and seek to reshape San Antonio – what might be called the Millennial Migration – he also understands how this new era threatens some longtime district residents, including trustees. Garza believes gentrification and district change are complex propositions, each posing great opportunity and challenge. Sitting at the head of a divided school board, he sees some of the divide as generational, not necessarily philosophical or political as I wrote in part one of this series.

(Read more: A Turning Point for San Antonio’s Inner City Schools.) I’ve invited Garza to take this space in the coming weeks and present his views directly to Rivard Report readers.

Ed Garza
Ed Garza

In 2012, Garza recalled, he wanted his fellow six school board trustees to reach unanimous agreement on the hiring of a new superintendent. His thinking then was that the best candidates would want to know they were coming to work for a district with its leaders unified in purpose and support of a new administration.

“What happened in 2012, 2013 is that the only way we could get a unanimous vote was by rejecting the first pool of candidates and that led us to Manuel Isquierdo,” Garza said in a recent interview. “That’s shown me that a unanimous vote is not absolutely necessary, and we might not be able to achieve that if we are going to hire a strong superintendent. We need a leader who can take us forward for the next 10 years. ”

Isquierdo, a superintendent of a suburban district near Tucson, Arizona, was forced to withdraw as the district’s lone finalist on the eve of his hiring following media disclosures that he owed $150,000 in unpaid federal taxes, was forced to pay the district more than $12,000 for personal charges placed on a district credit card, and was drawn into a grand jury investigation into misappropriation of laptops. Dr. Sylvester Perez, a veteran educator who the board had met as a finalist in its 2006 superintendent search, was hired out of retirement as an interim superintendent and then given the job. He has announced his intention to retire for good at the end of the current school year.

SAISD Interim Superintendent Sylvester Perez
SAISD Superintendent Sylvester Perez

With the district’s performance metrics trending positively and San Antonio becoming a destination city for more talented and skilled young professionals, the stage is now set to attract a top flight superintendent to lead the district into 2020 and fulfill its new mission of excellence. Garza and his fellow trustees, along with Dr. Perez, rewrote the district’s mission statement in 2012. It now states: “To transform SAISD into a national model urban school district where every child graduates and is educated so that he or she is prepared to be a contributing member of the community.”

Only one thing can stop the district’s forward momentum and that is board politics driving off the nation’s best candidates in favor of a status quo hire. Unfortunately, that seems to be exactly what could happen. On Dec. 15, divided trustees voted 4-3 to hire an unaccomplished search consultant and former SAISD superintendent as “co-consultant” while rejecting higher-performing firms with national reputations. How the board came to a 4-3 vote over a series of three meetings in the first half of December hardly inspires confidence.

It also raises a question: Does Garza as board president represent the district’s entrenched interests at the expense of those who want to see the district accelerate its rate of improvement?

SAISD Board Vice President and District 6 Trustee Olga Hernandez
Olga Hernandez

My reading of the latest 4-3 vote is that the two long-serving trustees, Olga Hernandez (D6) and James Howard (D2) represent more than a generational divide on the board. They represent resistance to change and they perpetuate a culture of dysfunction. Howard has been on the board since 1998, and Hernandez has been on the board since 2006. Both apparently will run for re-election in the May 9 city elections. First-term trustee Patti Radle (D5) also will be on the ballot. The four-year terms of trustees are staggered, so the other four trustees will complete their current terms in 2017. There are no term limits.

James Howard
James Howard

Both Howard and Hernandez first served on the board when it was controlled by Tom Lopez, who served from 1982 to 2011, nearly 30 years. For most of those years SAISD ranked as the worst or nearly the worst performing urban school district in Texas. Howard is a retired worker for the state teachers organization. Hernandez is a retired SAISD worker and, like Garza, a Jefferson High School graduate.

Hernandez and Howard, in my view, exert a strong gravitational pull on Garza, and with the election of Arthur Valdez (D4) to the board in 2013, there is now a four-vote majority of trustees who attended SAISD schools as children and have lived in the district all or most of their lives and do not support the kind of change and reform necessary if the mission statement is going to become more than pretty words.

Hernandez does not have a college degree and did not consent to an interview. Howard, a college graduate, did not return calls. Valdez did speak with me. He has an associate degree, and credits the vocational classes he took at Burbank High School and then Alamo Colleges and his four years in the Air Force as excellent preparation for his 40-year career as en electrical engineer for Boeing and some its contractors. Valdez’s three children also attended Burbank and went on to earn university degrees. One son, well-known artist Vincent Valdez, attended the highly-regarded Rhode Island School of Design on a full scholarship.

Arthur Valdez
Arthur Valdez

“I wanted him to be an engineer, but he had a talent for art, and look at him today,” Valdez said with pride. “My family is a good example of the excellent education available at our district schools, contrary to what you read in some of the media. Burbank was a great school for me.  It’s a good school today. All you hear is negative publicity, but they’re doing a good job educating the kids there.”

Burbank is 97% Hispanic and 90% disadvantaged. It graduated 90% of its students on schedule in 2010, yet only 37% of the students were college ready in math and reading. For some of the trustees and many in the community who have a stake in the district’s performance, that is not good enough.

Radle and Trustee Debra Guerrero (D3) are both former City Council members. They and Trustee Steve Lecholop (D1) are all first term school board members who are willing to support the kind of profound changes necessary to change district culture and education outcomes. If they could convince Garza to join them, they believe Valdez might follow suit. With a solid majority supporting change, many district watchers believe, a national caliber superintendent could be recruited and hired, while Howard and Hernandez would probably not run again if they were in the minority.

Howard has not officially said he will seek re-election. He told people after his re-election in 2011 that his fourth term would be his last, but he wouldn’t be the first officeholder to change his mind. So far, no one else has filed for the seat. Hernandez has announced at least one fundraiser on her Facebook page. She has drawn an opponent, someone who represents the Millennial wave moving into the center city.

Scott Meltzer
Scott Meltzer

Scott Meltzer, 27, is deputy director of the 80/20 Foundation, Rackspace Co-founder and Chairman Graham Weston’s philanthropic foundation. He is working on a graduate degree in educational leadership at St. Mary’s University, and formerly worked at Communities in Schools, the highly-regarded anti-dropout organization, and also at City Year, the community volunteer organization.

District 6 is part of the city in transition. It includes the Alta Vista and Beacon Hill neighborhoods, the latter the scene of the long-running French & Michigan zoning dispute. The race between Hernandez and Meltzer will be a test of how much the district has changed as well as Meltzer’s ability to convince some of Hernandez’s supporters that a change in leadership would lead to better schools.

Hernandez is a retired SAISD worker who has lived in the district her entire life. No one doubts her commitment to the district. She probably attends more district events than any other trustee, but her view of the district and its place in the city is a narrow and insular one. Her actions and statements indicate she will not support superintendent candidates unless they are Hispanic and Spanish-speaking, which places her own cultural comfort level ahead of the board’s commitment to seek the best possible candidates.  Former trustees say Hernandez is dismissive of non-Hispanic candidates regardless of their credentials.

Discussing his own planned departure from the district’s top job some months ago in executive session, Dr. Perez is said to have told trustees that he hopes the board has progressed to the point where they will seek the best available superintendent rather than the best available superintendent who fits a narrow set of preconditions. The reform-minded trustees, however, doubt the board is ready to show such maturity.

Past trustees have recounted incidents to me where Hernandez has made disparaging remarks about various San Antonio civic and business leaders who have worked to elevate the quality of inner city public education. Her dislike seems mostly focused on Charles Butt, chairman and CEO of H-E-B, and the company itself for its active interest in the district and public education throughout the state. Hernandez seems to regard that commitment as meddling. H-E-B is the district’s biggest taxpayer and employer. Its expanding corporate headquarters is located only a few blocks away from SAISD headquarters.

H-E-B Chairman and CEO Charles Butt address the audience at the 2013 Excellence in Education Awards in Austin, May 3. Photo courtesy of H-E-B.
H-E-B Chairman and CEO Charles Butt address the audience at the 2013 Excellence in Education Awards in Austin, May 3, 2013. Photo courtesy of H-E-B. Credit: Photo courtesy of H-E-B

Butt and H-E-B are the biggest supporters of public education excellence in the state, pouring tens of millions of dollars into programs to strengthen public schools and to reward excellence. Such philanthropy doesn’t win the company any additional market share. It’s simply central to this Butt family’s community ethos, which dates back to the founders. No Texas district has benefitted more than SAISD, where Butt and H-E-B have spent millions of dollars to bring the nationally celebrated Teach for America organization to the city. He also has funded professionalization programs for the trustees and district leadership.

Hernandez, former trustees said, resents the outside consultants brought in to teach better school board governance and communications to trustees, especially the team-building exercises and homework assignments.

The Search Firm Fiasco

In October last year, Superintendent Perez announced plans to retire in April 1, a departure date later extended to the end of the school year in June. The May 9 board elections serve as a de facto deadline for trustees.

In November, the board issued a request for proposals from search firms. Memories were still fresh from 2012, when the board’s intended hiring of Isquierdo blew up just before he was officially hired. PROACT Search, a national search firm, conducted that search, but the board rejected its pool of leading candidates. PROACT was asked to provide a second pool. It recommended Isquierdo after a hasty search with inadequate vetting. It became evident to the firm, sources told me, that they better produce a Spanish-speaking Hispanic. Everything else was secondary. The failure of the firm and the school board to check Isquierdo’s background before naming him the sole finalist for the job caused great embarrassment and deepened people’s lack of confidence in the district’s leadership.

Hernandez has publicly blamed PROACT for the failed search, while failing to address her own role in summarily dismissing the firm’s leading candidates because they did not speak Spanish.

This time around, four firms responded with interest: Thompson & Horton, a law firm in Houston that specializes in conducting superintendent searches throughout Texas; David Gomez & Associates, an executive search firm in Chicago that is expanding into school district superintendent searches; McShan Consulting, a one-person firm based in Harlingen in the Rio Grande Valley; Ray and Associates, a Iowa-based firm with national reach.

Thompson & Horton has had the most experience recruiting superintendents for big urban school districts.  The firm includes David Thompson, one of the state’s most respected education attorneys; Dr. Mike Moses, the former Texas Commissioner of Education and former superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District; and Dr. Julian Treviño, a former SAISD teacher, principal, and school board president who currently serves on the education faculty at UTSA.

Julián Treviño
Julián Treviño

Treviño’s tenure on the school board overlapped with Hernandez and Howard, and during his time as board president, Treviño pushed a reform agenda that was opposed by Hernandez and Howard and other trustees no longer on the board. Treviño is seen by Hernandez and Howard as philosophically allied with San Antonio business leaders who have actively worked to improve district performance, and thus represents a threat.

Click here to read the Thompson & Horton proposal to the SAISD board.

Based on the proposals submitted to the board, Thompson & Horton’s closest competition should have been Ray and Associates, which is currently conducting the superintendent search for the Austin Independent School District. Click here to read the Ray and Associates proposal.

The board concluded that David Gomez and Associates, while impressive in the interview process and experienced in the corporate recruiting world, did not have school district experience and would not make the cut. Click here to read the David Gomez and Associates proposal.

Ultimately, the board hired George McShan, who lives and works in Harlingen, where he has served on the local school board for 27 years. McShan has no record of big district superintendent recruiting. His proposal to SAISD lists the searches he has led for various smaller South Texas districts, including the Corpus Christi ISD and Ysleta (El Paso) ISD (approximately 35,000 and 42,000 students, respectively).

McShan’s proposal listed as a “co-lead consultant” Dr. Rubén Olivárez, who served as superintendent at SAISD more than a decade ago, overlapping for a few years with the tenure of Hernandez and Howard on the board. Olivárez teaches at UT-Austin’s College of Education‘s Public School Executive Leadership program. Olivárez’s value, it appeared from the outset, was his personal relationships with Hernandez and Howard and his tacit understanding of the superintendent profile that they are seeking. McShan’s track record of searches largely focused in South Texas was another strong indicator that he would recruit from a pool of eligible candidates that would meet such narrow expectations.

Click here to read the McShan proposal.

A Deceitful Applicant?

Search firms are judged by their past work. No school board wants to hire a firm with a history of promoting candidates who turn out to be bad hires. To that end, at the Dec. 8 board meeting when the trustees interviewed representatives from each of the search firms, Lecholop asked McShan, “How many of the superintendents that you or your firm have placed have been non-renewed or fired?” A truthful response to this question would have disclosed any instances where his placements in other districts had resulted in termination or a decision to not renew their contracts.

McShan responded to Lecholop’s question by acknowledging: “I’ve had some . . . ‘retire’, but as far as being fired, I can’t think of any. There was one small district, I must say, yes, in Edcouch-Elsa.  Did terminate a superintendent.  It’s very unique.  There was some issues with the superintendent, and I called on Dr. Olivárez to consult with this superintendent, but he didn’t do so, so he was fired.”

After conducting a basic Internet search later that evening, Lecholop concluded that McShan had misled trustees. He had omitted his role in 2011 as the lead member of BWP & Associates—a Libertyville, Ill. search firm—that recruited Kathy Augustine, the deputy superintendent in Atlanta, to become the superintendent of the Desoto ISD in suburban Dallas. At the time, Augustine was implicated in a standardized-test score-rigging scandal in Atlanta. The Desoto trustees learned of her role only after hiring her. She was effectively relieved of duties in her first week on the job, agreeing to resign in exchange for one year’s salary. It was a spectacular and expensive embarrassment for the Desoto board.

The Dallas Morning News coverage highlighted another search led by McShan for the Jackson-Madison County school system in Tennessee in which board members said they “lost confidence in the firm” because a “superintendent candidate had left a previous district amid controversy and board members were unaware.” As the Morning News pointed out: “An editorial in the local newspaper said, ‘Easily obtainable information that raises doubts about some of the candidates either was overlooked, never sought or ignored by the search firm.’”

McShan listed the Jackson-Madison County search in his proposal to SAISD as an example of his success placing superintendents. Read the Dallas Morning News coverage here.

A Failed Compromise

The SAISD board was scheduled to select one of the four firms after the interviews on Monday night, December 8, but Howard and Valdez told Garza they were unprepared to vote. Howard, in particular, has a reputation for coming to board meetings without reviewing materials provided in advance by district staff.  In this instance he had not bothered to read the four search firm proposals. Garza tolerates such behavior and postponed the vote and required the board to reconvene the following evening.

It was at the second meeting that Lecholop shared the Dallas Morning news coverage of McShan’s lead role in the Desoto ISD’s hiring and dismissal of Augustine. The article clearly contradicted what McShan had told the board in his Monday interview.

Hernandez, in turn, produced a copy of a 2011 Bloomberg article about federal regulators fining Southwest Securities, a Dallas-based bond underwriter, for using consultants to solicit municipal bond business, which is highly regulated. The article named Dr. Moses, a member of the Thompson & Horton team, as one of the consultants hired by the firm, although his name did not surface in the incidents for which the firm was fined.

Although Moses was not implicated in the firm’s actions that drew the fines, Hernandez attempted to use the article as evidence that his search firm should not be hired. Howard agreed, making several unsupported assertions that he knew of other illicit information that should eliminate Thompson & Horton from consideration. When pressed, Howard said he did not feel comfortable sharing anything publicly. He was cautioned by Pablo Escamilla, the district’s legal counsel, to refrain from disparaging Moses without evidence to support his remarks.

Despite disagreement at the Tuesday meeting it appeared that a compromise was reached: the board voted to pursue a joint venture between Thompson & Horton and former superintendent Olivárez, which would effectively remove McShan from the process. When informed of the board’s proposal, Thompson & Horton agreed to work with Olivárez. The former school superintendent, however, refused to collaborate with Thompson & Horton, killing the board’s compromise solution.

At the board’s next scheduling meeting, Monday, Dec. 15, McShan and Thompson & Horton were invited back for another round. Because of the delays, both firms were explicitly told to have a proposed recruitment and candidate interview timeline ready for discussion. Both firms were offered the chance to respond to the allegations levied at the prior meeting.

Moses explained that he had served as a consultant to Southwest Securities and was not implicated in the conduct which resulted in sanctions. McShan provided the board with a letter dated Dec. 11 that said he had not misled the board about the Desoto incident because Augustine resigned and was not technically fired. Lecholop had asked only about candidates who were fired, he said. That seemed disingenuous at best.

McShan claimed in the letter that he had fully informed the Desoto board of the cheating scandal and his belief that Augustine was not implicated. A Desoto board member who was quoted in the Dallas Morning News said the board learned of her troubles reading the newspaper and only then was McShan forced to address the matter. McShan’s letter didn’t address the concerns about his involvement in the Jackson-Madison search.

The Vote

At the December 15 meeting, Trustees Lecholop, Debra Guerrero (D3), and Patti Radle (D5) all articulated specific reasons in voicing their support for hiring Thompson & Horton. Lecholop, who was not on the board during the Isquierdo search, discussed the need for the board to avoid repeating its past mistakes and the need to rebuild public trust. Guerrero, a former city councilwoman, cited Thompson & Horton’s extensive experience conducting searches for urban districts with similar student demographics to SAISD. Radle, also a former city councilwoman, echoed their sentiments.

“This is the most important decision the board will make because this is about the future of our city,  the future of our workforce, and the future of our district,” Guerrero told me. “This decision will influence the direction of the city for the next five, 10, 15 years. It’s going to take all of us as a team to work together to achieve the right outcome.”

Trustees Hernandez, Howard, and Valdez, on the other hand, all expressed their support for McShan, but failed to specify a single reason why. The closest any of them came was to praise the local connection that Olivárez would bring. None of the three noted that Trevino’s involvement in the Thompson & Horton firm would offer the same local flavor with much greater experience. Such actions by Hernandez and Howard, while disappointing, were unsurprising. Neither wanted to work with Julián Treviño.

Valdez said later in an interview that he has researched the respective firms and voted for McShan because of his prior searches for other South Texas districts.

“I am happy to explain why I voted the way I voted,” Valdez said. “I did my research, I did my homework, and the Thompson group is good at finding superintendents for those big suburban districts. McShan has a better understanding of inner city districts like ours. He does a lot of work in South Texas and in places like Corpus Christi. I have a lot of confidence he will find a superintendent that fits our district.”

During the meeting, poor governance once again ruled the day. Garza permitted McShan to speak at the lectern in support of his proposal. McShan proceeded to deliver a rambling history of his work experience and his reputation in Harlingen. Most telling, though, was his open criticism of Thompson & Horton after being asked how his experience compared to theirs. His comments were borderline unethical. Garza did not challenge McShan, and then failed to invite the Thompson & Horton representative to rebut the accusations.

Faced with a 3-3 tie and no prospect of a unanimous showing to citizens and potential candidates, Garza asked district counsel Escamilla what a deadlocked board decision would mean, although he had yet to vote. Told that a tie meant no action taken, Garza broke the tie by voting for McShan without explaining his decision to those in attendance.

After the vote, McShan was again called to the lectern to discuss next steps, but he had come unprepared to discuss a proposed timeline, despite the explicit direction to be prepared to do so.

The Timeline for the Superintendent Search

McShan and Olivárez were on hand for the Jan. 20 school board meeting. McShan presented a proposed timeline for applications, interviews and a decision, which was immediately criticized by trustees as poorly thought out. Even Howard said it lacked the necessary “wiggle room” for trustees to interview multiple candidates and bring back finalists for a second round. The next half hour was an embarrassing demonstration of McShan fumbling dates written on a piece of paper and mumbling at the microphone about options. He repeatedly frustrated trustees with his non-responsive remarks, and his repeated references to possible “site visits for the board” as if trustees intended to travel to distant districts where candidates work.

Anyone observing that day would have concluded that McShan lacks the presence or intellect to persuade a high performing superintendent in another urban district to apply in San Antonio.

Steve Lecholop
Steve Lecholop

“Every decision the board makes related to this search should be unimpeachable and viewed as an opportunity not only to select an incredible superintendent, but also to rebuild public trust in the board and school district,” Lecholop said afterwards. “For me, that’s why the hiring of McShan Consulting Group at the expense of a much more qualified search firm, and in a divided vote, was such a disappointment. The decision was an opportunity to show the public that the board is serious about conducting a high-quality search while putting the history of missteps in the past. Ultimately, that opportunity was missed.

“However, despite my vote against the McShan group, I am fully committed to working hard to ensure that SAISD hires an amazing superintendent,” Lecholop said. “SAISD students deserve a visionary, reform-minded leader with a track-record of success who is dedicated to improving the academic performance of all students.  I’ll do everything in my capacity to ensure that one misguided decision does not impact the quality of the future leader of our district.”

The Fallout

By a one vote majority, the board had agreed to hire a consultant that fit the exact description of what Hernandez claimed in the open interview process she did not want: someone with a track record of not fully vetting its recommended candidates and delivering poor candidates for hire to other boards.

Former District 5 City Councilmember Patti Radle. Photo courtesy of SA2020.
Patti Radle

“I want the firm to seek candidates from the unsuspected places, as well as the traditional places. I want them to interest and attract the highly successful candidate who is already passionately working on creative and effective initiatives wherever they are at,” Radle said in an interview after the vote. “I hope that as a board we are open-minded, willing to be surprised, and willing to travel in new waters.  I want to be presented with information on candidates that has been researched very well.”

The board wants to hire a new superintendent by early May. The deadline for applicants is March 6. Some of the best superintendent candidates, however, will be wary of the divided school board and its 4-3 vote. Superintendent searches tend to move slowly, and there is no guarantee the board will act before the May elections, or even before Perez departs and the school year ends in June. For now, it will be up to Garza and his fellow trustees to convince the public that the board’s recent actions were sound, and that the outcome will be the hiring of a high performing superintendent.

Public expectations throughout the district are high.

 *Featured/top image: SAISD Superintendent Dr. Sylvester Perez emcees the Board Appreciation Ceremony. Photo by Robert Rivard.

Related Stories:

A Turning Point for San Antonio’s Inner City Schools

The Power of SAISD Fathers in Action

Coming Soon: Young Men’s Leadership Academy

All-Girl College Prep Turning Heads in San Antonio, Producing Tomorrow’s Leaders

 Teach for America, SAISD Foundation Make Music Together

Inspire Awards Highlight SAISD Excellence

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.