Harlandale ISD board members hold a public hearing in August on the TEA's investigation of the district. Credit: Stephanie Marquez / San Antonio Report

Officials with the Texas Education Agency notified Harlandale Independent School District Friday it would reverse course on the preliminary decision made last summer to remove the elected board of trustees. Instead, the State will appoint a conservator, who can override board decisions.

Last June, Commissioner of Education Mike Morath notified the district he intended to appoint a conservator, replace elected trustees with a board of managers, and lower the district’s accreditation rating after an investigation found Harlandale’s board of trustees failed to monitor district finances, acted individually on behalf of the board, and violated the Texas Open Meetings Act through group text messages among board members.

On Friday, Morath wrote in a letter to the district that he had decided to not appoint a board of managers based upon information Harlandale leaders presented in an appeal meeting last summer. The district’s accreditation status will be lowered to accredited-warned.

“During the review on August 7, 2019, the district presented a complete record of text messages in which TEA was not in possession during the investigation, preliminary report, or final report,” Morath wrote. “This information presented by the district indicated the violation of the open meetings act was not as severe as initially presented during the investigation.”

Morath also wrote that the issues with the procurement process and internal financial controls were managed by a superintendent who no longer works for the district. Last summer, trustees moved to fire Superintendent Rey Madrigal, but ultimately negotiated a separation agreement. They hired Gerardo Soto as the new district chief on Dec. 30.

Morath appointed Judy Castleberry, who previously served as a conservator in South San ISD, as Harlandale’s conservator. He said agency staff will introduce Castleberry at the next district meeting.

With the appointment of a conservator, Harlandale ISD becomes the third San Antonio-area district under state supervision. Edgewood ISD was governed by a board of managers and is transitioning back to elected governance and Southside ISD is currently governed by a board of managers. South San Antonio ISD is currently under State investigation for issues involving purchasing and governance.

TEA began investigating Harlandale ISD in 2017 after complaints alleged nepotism, issues with the district’s procurement process, financial mismanagement, and dysfunctional governance.

State investigators released an initial report in November 2018 and allowed the district to respond to the agency’s findings. A report released June 7 contains final conclusions and reiterates many of the initial findings. Harlandale leaders appealed this report in early August.

Board President Ricardo Moreno said the board plans to meet Tuesday to discuss the TEA’s decision.

“Obviously right now, we respect the decision TEA made,” Moreno said. “We understand that in any profession you have to have hard conversations, hard decisions, [about] what you feel is best for kids. We’ve done that as a school district in terms of separating ourselves from our previous superintendent.

“We have been progressive in the way that we have addressed issues that we have had in the past and with creating a new makeup of the board and in selecting Mr. Soto as the superintendent. [We are] showing TEA that we are serious and committed to the goals that are focused on our kids.”

A district spokesman told the Rivard Report Harlandale ISD was glad the Commissioner had taken the process seriously and looked forward to working with Castleberry.

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.