Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath speaks during a Texas State Board of Education meeting in April.
Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath has delayed return to school plans as the coronavirus continues to cause uncertainty throughout the state. Credit: Stephen Spillman for the San Antonio Report

The Texas Education Agency has informed the South San Antonio Independent School District it is opening a special accreditation investigation amid concerns of dysfunctional board governance.

The announcement comes a little more than a week after two state senators wrote to Commissioner of Education Mike Morath asking the Texas Education Agency to intervene.

In a letter sent to South San on April 18, Jason Hewitt, the director of the TEA Special Investigations Unit, said the TEA decided to open the investigation in response to multiple complaints that the board was acting outside its authority by directing district administrators on day-to-day operations and impeding the superintendent’s duties.

“The South San Antonio ISD Board of Trustees have exceeded their authority by attempting to reopen school campuses without receiving a recommendation from the superintendent,” Hewitt wrote describing the content of the complaints.

The TEA plans to gather information from a “variety of sources” and requested board meeting agendas, meeting minutes, archived video of open meetings, all board member communications, and electronic communication of members to the superintendent and district staff for the investigation.

The TEA also asked to interview a number of individuals including Superintendent Alexandro Flores, board president Connie Prado, the other six trustees, and district staff.

The TEA last concluded a special accreditation investigation into South San operations in 2015. At the time, the agency found concerns that involved improper management of the 2010 bond program. The TEA issued a corrective action plan that South San failed to follow, resulting in a conservator being appointed in February 2016.

The district declined to comment.

In a written statement, Prado said she welcomes the “pending TEA visit” and that the board of trustees will cooperate fully with the investigation.

“The Board has proceeded systematically and methodically in its efforts to fulfill its electoral mandate to re-open Athens Elementary, Kazen Middle School and West Campus High School,” Prado wrote. “There has been fierce public debate. At this time a majority of the Board of Trustees truly believes that we must restore the trust and confidence by reopening our schools. Elections have consequences. We look forward to accomplishing this goal with the help of our Superintendent.”

In identical letters sent to the TEA, State Sens. José Menéndez and Pete Flores outlined what they viewed as issues in board governance and financial mismanagement on the South San board.

“We are concerned that reopening any closed campuses will deplete needed resources from an already thinly stretched district,” the senators wrote. “South San ISD is projected to lose another 300 students in the upcoming 2019-20 school year. In spite of these losses, the Board President and a faction of the Board have proposed a course of action that will cost the district over $6 million by their own estimates to re-establish the three campuses under an unreasonable timeline to reopen by the start of the 2019-20 school year.”

The senators asked Morath to install a conservator immediately to prevent any “further irreparable harm [being] done to the students and the community of the South San Antonio Independent School District.”

South San was the subject of state intervention from February 2016 to January 2018 when a conservator oversaw board decisions regarding concerns of board governance and financial mismanagement. The TEA pulled the conservator a little more than a year ago because of renewed confidence in the district’s board.

In November, school board elections swept out three incumbents, adding four new trustees to the board: Homer Flores, Shirley Ibarra Pena, Mandy Martinez, and Gilbert Rodriguez. Three of these trustees aligned with board president Prado. The four-trustee majority has been pushing a plan to reopen three shuttered campuses by next school year, over the wishes of Superintendent Alexandro Flores to research the matter further before implementation.

At a recent meeting, the four trustees voted to further a plan that takes money from the district’s fund balance to cover the startup costs for the schools. The approved plan states that the cost to reopen the schools could be a little more than $6 million.

District trustees Louis Ybarra and Elda Flores have remarked that the board is exceeding its authority and micromanaging the district staff.

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.