South San ISD board of trustees.
A four-trustee majority on the South San Antonio ISD board of trustees wants the district to reopen three shuttered schools. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

State Sen. Pete Flores, joined by State Sen. José Menéndez, wrote to the Texas Education Agency Wednesday, asking the state agency to install a conservator in South San Antonio Independent School District because of concerns regarding financial mismanagement and issues with board governance. If TEA concurs, this would be the second conservator installed in South San within three years.

In the letters, the senators outline South San’s history and recent votes by a four-trustee majority to reopen three shuttered campuses. A news release said the two sent identical letters.

“By solely focusing on the reopening of these campuses, these four [trustees] additionally rejected to hear a proposal from the City of San Antonio to transform the recently shuttered middle school into a badly needed community center for the students,” wrote Flores, a Republican, and Menéndez, a Democrat. “As the press has documented, tears flowed at a recent Board meeting as more than 20 students and parents spoke to the board, overwhelmingly against the proposal to reopen the schools. This is a perfect example of how the community has not been effectively engaged in discussions regarding the reopening of these campuses.”

The senators say the four trustees – Homer Flores, Shirley Ibarra Pena, Connie Prado, and Gilbert Rodriguez – have split from the district superintendent on this plan and say they have substituted “blind faith for hard data from its own staff.”

“It is this kind of historical mismanagement of financial resources and micromanagement of administration by the Board that caused the Agency to install a Conservator in the past,” the senators wrote. “Today, the new majority is displaying the same kind of previous behaviors, once again led by its long time Board Member who is the current Board President.”

Prado, the board president, said she was surprised to read Flores’ letter and believed it sounded like something Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4), a South San graduate and sometimes critic of the board, would write.

“I’m surprised that Senator Flores has asked this,” Prado said. “We have not seen Senator Flores in our district. I have never met the man. He has not been to any of our board meetings. He is not familiar with South San.”

Prado added that the board has acted legally and within its purview in every action. The board has worked diligently to make sure all financial decisions met the recommendations of Moak, Casey & Associates, Prado said.

Moak, Casey & Associates are consultants the board voted to hire to help on the proposal to reopen the three shuttered campuses by next school year, over the objections of Superintendent Alexandro Flores and some community members.

South San Antonio ISD officials declined a request for comment.

State oversight concluded in South San in January 2018 when the TEA decided to pull a State-appointed conservator from the district because of renewed confidence.

“I wanted to take this opportunity to say that the board has made significant progress in the almost two years that I have been here, and that has nothing to do with anything that I have done,” Conservator Judy Castleberry told the board at the time.

Castleberry was placed in South San in February 2016 after the board failed to comply with a corrective action plan. She was assigned to supervise financial management and governance.

Recent actions from a board with four new trustees, elected in November 2018, have raised familiar concerns with the plan that would reopen the three shuttered campuses.

The plan could be costly, requiring the district to spend money on readying buildings that have been vacant for at least two years and filling the facilities with furniture and other supplies when no nearby campuses are at capacity.

Amid a several-year trend of declining enrollment, the four-trustee majority has steadily argued that reopening the campuses would bring more students back to South San and restore trust in the community that was lost when the campuses first closed.

Trustee Elda Flores, who has voted against the majority in each vote over the proposal, routinely expressed concerns that the board was acting outside its boundaries and micromanaging district staff.

In response to a request to join the senators writing to the TEA, State Rep. Roland Gutierrez said he was “shocked” to see Flores was attempting to interfere in South San’s operations.

“South San ISD has been one of the most scrutinized school districts in our area in the past,” Gutierrez wrote in a letter. “However, they have worked through any perceived deficiencies and are functioning quite well.”

However, Gutierrez’s district includes none of South San’s population. San Antonio Democratic State Reps. Philip Cortez and Leo Pacheco split the district, according to a Texas Legislative Council document.

In the past, elected officials have written the TEA with similar requests. In 2013, Saldaña asked the agency to investigate South San for financial mismanagement and concerns about trustees micromanaging the superintendent. In 2016, Menéndez asked then-TEA Commissioner Michael Williams to investigate nearby Edgewood ISD for cronyism and board governance issues.

In both cases, an investigation was already ongoing or initiated, and the State ultimately intervened in South San, through a state-appointed conservator, and in Edgewood with a board of managers.

A TEA spokesperson confirmed to the Rivard Report that the agency is reviewing a complaint lodged against the district but declined to provide further information until its review is wrapped up. There is no other investigation underway, the spokesperson said.

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.