The Harlandale ISD board of trustees
Harlandale ISD is appealing the TEA’s recent decision to replace its board with State-appointed managers. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Since 2016, the Texas Education Agency has opened investigations into four San Antonio school districts, all with campuses on the South Side. In three districts, the agency decided to push aside elected boards and replace them with State-appointed managers; a fourth district could face similar sanctions pending the completion of an investigation into how its board operates.

In a state with more than 1,000 independent school districts, no other major metro area in Texas has drawn a similar level of State involvement in local school district operations. The four districts, which together enroll fewer than 40,000 students, have contiguous boundaries, forming a band that stretches from north of U.S. Highway 90 to south of Loop 410.

The issues that caused the State to intervene in each district are similar in each case: poor governance of the districts, mismanaged district finances, or trustees acting individually on behalf of the board. Harlandale ISD is appealing the TEA’s recent decision to replace its board with State-appointed managers, but should its appeal fail it will join Southside ISD and Edgewood ISD, which operate under State control. South San Antonio ISD is under investigation by the State.

Elsewhere in Texas, Marlin ISD, southeast of Waco, and Beaumont ISD near Houston have seen their elected boards replaced by a board of managers.

Jeff Cottrill, TEA’s deputy commissioner of governance and accountability, stressed that the agency intervenes only as a last resort and only after taking measures to guide school boards on following State laws and monitoring their progress and compliance.

“Sometimes we find ourselves in a position where no matter the support or coaching that we are providing, we may be in a position where we are not actually getting the results that we need in order to move [districts] forward,” he said.

“There are kids’ lives at stake, there are kids’ futures at stake, and every day a district isn’t serving a kid at the most optimal levels, then in a way we are adversely affecting kids and their learning opportunities and the investment in their future.”

District observers and education leaders believe that the size and insular nature of the districts in San Antonio could be a reason for some of the repeated governance issues. Others speculate that once TEA investigates one district, nearby district residents become more aware of the process and submit complaints, triggering additional investigations.

TEA has a few options when it receives a complaint about a school board running poorly or mismanaging its budget. After an investigation, the State can install a monitor, who observes how school trustees do their jobs and reports back to TEA; appoint a conservator, who has the power to override board decisions; or, in cases where stronger action is required, disband local government in favor of an appointed board of managers.

The common theme

More than three decades ago, Texas’ commissioner of education tasked Yvonne Katz to review the accreditation status of South San Antonio Independent School District. In the 1970s, the district’s accreditation level changed several times and Katz, then the State agency’s director of accreditation, was to make a recommendation after visiting with administrators and the school board.

After spending just a short time in the district, Katz said she knew something was amiss.

Alamo Colleges board president Yvonne Katz.
Alamo Colleges District trustee Yvonne Katz

Board members had been spending money inappropriately, said Katz, now a trustee for the Alamo Colleges District. One had used a district credit card to spend a weekend with his wife at a downtown hotel while another had been taking cash out for personal use, Katz said.

Katz recommended revoking the district’s accreditation, but the education commissioner allowed South San to remain accredited, she said.

“It wasn’t the finance piece, it wasn’t the students’ scoring [on tests] piece – although the scores were not where they should be – it was the governance piece,” Katz said of the district’s problems. “That was in the spring of 1983, and this is the spring of 2019 and you can see that it has not improved.”

Thirty-six years after Katz made her visit to South San, the TEA is investigating how the board is running the district.

This is a common theme in Bexar County districts under the State’s thumb.

In 2016, TEA announced plans for intervention in Edgewood ISD because of the board’s inability to govern the district and failure to collaborate with district administration. At the end of 2016, Southside ISD received similar news because trustees couldn’t govern the district or comply with contract procurement laws. In recent weeks, Harlandale’s board also got word that TEA intended to appoint a board of managers for similar issues with contract procurement, board dysfunction, and trustees acting individually on behalf of the board.

Superintendent Rey Madrigal at the HISD board meeting on June 13, 2019.
Harlandale ISD Superintendent Rey Madrigal

State investigators concluded that Superintendent Rey Madrigal entered into agreements and made payments to engineering consultants without board approval, in violation of State and local policy; the board failed to monitor district finances to ensure the superintendent properly maintained the district’s financial procedures and records; and that trustees held meetings and conducted district business through group text messages, in violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act.

The board recently voted to appeal the State’s sanctions. Harlandale ISD is expected to review the conclusions and sanctions with the commissioner of education in the next month.

The insular nature of small districts

South San, Harlandale, Southside, and Edgewood are smaller districts with a close-knit sense of community, which observers said can sometimes indicate an insular nature and an environment in which who you know matters more than expertise.

Former City Councilman Rey Saldaña, a graduate of South San High School whose council district included South San ISD, posited a potential reason for the common problems in the four districts.

“You have to start with the fact that most of these districts are small, usually closed-off communities that have been historically overlooked and underserved,” said Saldaña, who as the South Texas outreach director for nonprofit Raise Your Hand Texas is working to create a grassroots advocacy network for the region’s public schools.

“Because they’re small, they’re also very connected [and] close. Smallness is great for cohesion, but bad when you know that your son, daughter, mother, or father have a relationship with school board leadership. No one wants to rock the boat.”

Saldaña argued that this allows problems to remain in place longer without being addressed.

“[T]he easy deflection when someone says or writes something negative about the district is ‘Well, they’re not from here, they don’t live in our community, they’re outsiders, what do they know?’ ” Saldaña said. “Fear keeps the status quo in check and allows the darkness that corruption operates under.”

Councilman Rey Saldaña urges the South San ISD board to transform the school into a community center.
Then-Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) speaks in front of the South San ISD board in February.

Trinity urban studies professor Christine Drennon, who has researched how Bexar County’s school districts were formed, agreed that size could play a role in the districts’ troubles.

While not a political scientist, Drennon said conventional political science theory dictates that smaller districts simply have smaller pools from which to pull for elected office.

In South San and Harlandale, the districts are divided into even smaller single-member districts, narrowing the field of potential candidates for school board positions. Last year, South San struggled to attract qualified applicants for open board seats.

A larger candidate pool is one of the benefits of a larger district, Drennon said. However, that theory doesn’t hold up for all districts under State oversight. A State-appointed conservator also oversees Houston ISD, the state’s largest school district. And small districts like Alamo Heights and Somerset ISDs have not run afoul of the TEA.

“I think that it becomes very difficult to find folks who are willing to step up within the existing system,” Saldaña said. “[You have] the fear of retaliation so you’ll get one to two folks who can hold those positions for as long as they want unchallenged.”

State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio), who served as vice chair on the House Public Education Committee, agreed, adding that individuals easily can take advantage of the role of trustee by using the political power to push individual priorities.

The areas the school districts serve historically have felt overlooked by every level of government, he said.

“I’m saying that despite the best efforts of well-meaning and honestly effective people from City Council on up, but wherever you are in this city, you’d be hard-pressed to find people who know who their school board member is, what a school board member does, or could list off one accomplishment absent, let’s say, passing a bond,” Bernal said. “So what that does is that allows for some school board members to treat it more like a political office, than it is like an office of true service.”

Seeing problems nearby

Another factor in having a geographic cluster of school districts under State control may be that more district residents are aware they can make a complaint to TEA and follow it through to an investigative process, Deputy Commissioner Cottrill said. If residents see media reports about dysfunction in a neighboring district, it may spur them to examine their own district more closely and file a complaint with the TEA.

“These types of issues occur in all shapes and sizes and in all types of locations throughout the state,” Cottrill said. “… These concerns do occur in clusters in certain areas. Once one surfaces, oftentimes they surface in greater numbers.”

When the TEA takes over governing a school district, its aim is to address problems and return the district to local officials. After appointing a board of managers, TEA offers training in best governance practices to trustees who wish to reclaim their spots on an elected school board once State intervention is lifted.

This process can take about four years, Cottrill said. Edgewood and Southside ISDs are either in or approaching this transition process, adding elected trustees to the board of managers and having State-appointed managers step down until the board is composed entirely of elected officials.

“Basically the point of our State interventions and sanctions is to support school districts and bring them back into compliance and set them on a course to best support the students in a positive fashion all the way from governance to finance to securing good results for kids in terms of student success levels,” Cottrill said.

However, once a new slate of school trustees is elected, past problems can resurface. 

The TEA appointed a conservator to South San ISD in 2016 because of board governance and financial management issues. That conservator was removed in early 2018 because the district had made progress. In November of that year, residents elected four new trustees and new board officers who set different priorities. Complaints related to ensuing controversies triggered another State investigation, and a TEA monitor again recommended appointing a conservator.

To try to ease the transition between a board of managers and elected governance, the TEA made a recent change. The agency now appoints a conservator to oversee that transition, hoping to smooth over any issues that may arise.

But ultimately, there’s no guarantee that the State won’t again have to step in.

The most reliable way to discourage backsliding is self-policing mechanisms, Bernal said. Districts could implement policies to safeguard against procurement issues or board overreach.

“It would at least create a record of accountability that interested citizens [and] residents could look at,” Bernal said. “We need to make it so that business cannot be conducted without any paper trail. … The fact that it has happened leads one to believe that there isn’t really a desire or appetite to self-police.

“You shouldn’t have to wait for TEA to [step in] … The thing that gets left out of these conversations is the kids. We are shortchanging them.”

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.