The South San Antonio ISD school board.
The South San Antonio ISD school board. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

As South San Antonio Independent School District’s Wednesday night meeting stretched past the five-hour mark, Texas Education Agency monitor Laurie Elliott pointed out that the board had spent just over one minute of the entire meeting discussing student outcomes.

The general rule, as established by a state-endorsed school board governance model, is that a district should devote 50 percent of meeting time to talking about student outcomes and that meetings should last at most two hours.

Elliott made her point at the beginning of a lengthy scolding in which the TEA monitor read summaries of monthly reports she began writing when she first started observing board meetings in January.

Throughout the summaries, Elliott regularly recommended a conservator be appointed to oversee SSAISD’s governance and observed that some trustees were in violation of local board policy and state statute. Much of her report focused on board actions regarding a proposal to reopen three shuttered campuses by next school year.

Elliott also expressed concerns that Superintendent Alexandro Flores had regularly been ignored or publicly reprimanded by the board and that some board members gave directives to district staff outside the scope of board authority.

“As board members, you are not elected to be popular at the drugstore, nor are you elected to provide a balanced budget, or to approve the building specs, or to get jobs for the community, although all those things happen and many times they are important,” Elliott said. “But your number one priority, the reason you exist, is to improve student outcomes. … As I said tonight, you spent one minute and 21 seconds on your student outcome goal.”

No trustees offered comments or questions in response except for Board President Connie Prado, who directed attorney Kevin O’Hanlon to look into “some issues” with Elliott’s reports.

“We accept her report … but that’s why we have legal counsel,” Prado said after the meeting adjourned. “He makes sure whatever we do is in the law and that we are not overstepping our boundaries and doing what the board is authorized to do.”

Prado noted that the district plans to respond to Elliott’s reports through O’Hanlon.

In her reports, Elliott stated that after observing two meetings, it was clear that the board majority was managing the district and excluding the superintendent from important decisions. She noted that even after the board talked about Lone Star Governance, the state-endorsed governance model, at a meeting, it took action that was “totally against” its tenets and board policy.

“The board chair and certain board members have specific agendas with no concern for the impact to the district,” Elliott said.

In another report, Elliott singled out trustee Gilbert Rodriguez, who chairs the three-member Budget Committee and whose communication to district staff she described as mostly being in the form of directives. She added that both Rodriguez and Prado, one of the other members of the budget committee, showed no evidence of wanting to collaborate with district staff.

Rodriguez told reporters after the meeting that he believes the board does collaborate with the superintendent through agenda-setting meetings Prado holds with the superintendent.

Elliott mentioned a proposal by Councilman Rey Saldaña to use city money to create a community resource center at Kazen Middle School. Trustee Louis Ybarra asked for the proposal to be voted on by the full board in February, but Prado did not grant the request on an agenda for the full board at the time. Kazen is one of the three schools a majority of the SSAISD board wants to reopen.

“It is apparent Ms. Prado does not want this item to be discussed or brought to a vote, therefore, she is using her power to squelch the vote even though the services can be tied to student outcomes,” Elliott said.

At the conclusion of the February report, Elliott writes that a state-appointed conservator should be considered in the “very, very near future.”

In March, Elliott stated she observed several budget committee meetings and saw that the superintendent and his team had no say in the plan to reopen shuttered campuses. Flores was given directives by the board, financial consultants Moak, Casey & Associates, and O’Hanlon, Elliott said.

“The job of the board in relation to budget is to adopt or reject,” Elliott said. “The board should not be creating the budget with the help of a consulting team and legal counsel.”

On April 18, TEA officials wrote to South San to inform the district that the state would be investigating complaints that the board had exceeded its authority and micromanaged district staff.

If a state investigation finds the need for a state-appointed conservator, it would be the second time in the last three years that South San would find itself under state oversight.

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.