As anyone following the tense electoral battle over four seats on San Antonio’s largest inner-city school board knows, there is not much common ground shared by the district leadership and the teachers union.

My Sunday column will focus on audacious efforts by the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel to wrest control of the San Antonio Independent School District board in the May 1 city election. The slate of union candidates hopes to win a vacant District 3 seat and unseat three incumbents, and thus gain a controlling majority on the seven-member board.

The union’s unannounced goal, some believe, is to unseat SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez, now six years into an ambitious agenda of district transformation and improvement, undertaken with unequivocal board support. Voters will decide whether union proxies, including the husband of the union’s recently appointed president, should serve on school boards that are supposed to put the interests of students ahead of all other considerations, including the union agenda.

Turnout in such an important election is often dismal, despite the consequences.

More on that Sunday. Right now there is one thing educators across the state agree on: $18 billion in federal stimulus funds, mostly earmarked for Texas public schools, is being held hostage in Austin by state political leaders who want to use the money, in apparent defiance of federal law, to balance the state budget. Calls to release the funds to school districts to meet emergency needs brought on by the pandemic have been ignored.

An explainer from the public education advocacy nonprofit Raise Your Hand Texas can be accessed here.

Texas public school children will suffer the long-term consequences of such blatant political maneuvering. Funds intended to close the digital divide, to ramp up coronavirus testing, to provide mental health services, to refit campuses for safe, in-classroom instruction, to fund added counselors, school nurses, and other essential personnel, all have been waylaid by state Republican leaders without explanation or apology.

Texas state leaders have made no effort to draw down the $11 billion Rainy Day Fund to meet short-term budget needs. Federal stimulus funds have been treated like manna from heaven, a free political windfall, and a multibillion-dollar slush fund controlled by Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan.

Texas political leaders cynically loathe federal funding that could benefit the state’s most vulnerable populations, except when they don’t. In this instance, Texas public school students be damned.

“Have never seen a penny of that [money],” Martinez said in a meeting last week with the San Antonio Report, noting that three stimulus bills passed under President Donald Trump and then-President Joe Biden represented as much as $321 million in badly needed supplemental funds for SAISD. None of the funds have arrived. The diversions date to early 2020 after the first pandemic-inspired stimulus bill and have continued through the latest legislation pushed through by the Biden administration.

SAISD is weighing the decision of adding National Coming Out Day as an official district holiday. Superintendent Pedro Martinez, pictured, says it is not in response to an email asking schools to withhold from posting about the day.
SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“It’s just been so frustrating … federal law says that 90% of that funding is supposed to go to the school districts. It’s the law,” Martinez said. “They don’t even want to talk about it, they don’t even want to say anything about it. … There’s a secret bill that’s being passed … that says that any federal money after the session will be controlled directly by the legislative leaders, which is the governor, the lieutenant governor, the speaker of the house. They will make 100% of the decisions, which is code for they will give out money as [they] deem fit.”

Teachers agree.

“Congress intended for almost $18 billion in federal funds to be spent for Texas public schools and school kids, to help schools reopen and operate safely during the pandemic and cover some of their millions of dollars in extra, emergency expenses,” Texas State Teachers Association President Ovidia Molina said in a Wednesday press release.

“Congress did not intend to help the Legislature balance the next state budget by using the federal funds to replace state education dollars or use education stimulus money for other programs. The Senate Finance Committee yesterday approved its version of a new state budget without including any federal stimulus funds for schools, leaving the issue to ultimately be decided in the budget conference committee or maybe by this new proposed board.

“It is a slap in the face for Texas school children, their parents and their educators, who have performed heroically during this pandemic, often at great risk to themselves and their families,” Molina added.

There is common ground among district leaders and teachers on the federal stimulus funds, but that shared outrage is probably not enough to stop state Republican leaders from diverting funds, the majority approved by the Biden administration, from their intended recipients. Will the Biden administration and Congress allow that to happen?

Probably.

This article has been updated to reflect the latest estimates of the federal stimulus money that could come to SAISD.

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.