This article has been updated.
The Texas Education Agency has opened another investigation into South San Antonio Independent School District, just three months after concluding a two-year investigation that resulted in the placement of a state-appointed monitor to oversee the school board.
The agency notified Superintendent Marc Puig and board President Ernesto Arrellano Jr. in a letter Monday that Education Commissioner Mike Morath had authorized the investigation in response to complaints the TEA had received. The complaints claim the school board has interfered with the superintendent’s duties, including “getting involved with the suspension of a term employee and attempting to make employment recommendations for the chief financial officer,” the letter states.
In a statement, district spokesman Brad Domitrovich acknowledged that South San ISD has developed a reputation of discord and dysfunction in the boardroom.
“With the announcement of this newest special investigation, the board and superintendent pledge to promote an atmosphere of cooperation with the Texas Education Agency,” Domitrovich said. “Our main focus, from the board of trustees to administration to the hard-working people in the classroom, remains doing everything we can to be the best champions for our children and our community.”
Arrellano did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
The TEA letter comes two weeks after monitor Abelardo “Abe” Saavedra told the board it violated state law and its own policy during recent meetings. Saavedra began serving as the state-appointed monitor on Sept. 30, a month after the TEA closed an investigation into similar problems between the board and superintendent.
Investigators found that trustees failed to cooperate with the superintendent and acted outside of their authority by contacting district staff to seek information and discuss district business, such as disciplinary issues and changes to board agendas. Board members also demonstrated overreach of their duties by contacting vendors, consultants, and other educational organizations on the district’s behalf without informing the superintendent, according to an Aug. 31 TEA letter to the district.
The Aug. 31 letter and final investigative report warned South San ISD that the TEA could issue further sanctions for the district if it did not correct the problems identified in the report and that more investigations could follow if district officials violated the law.
Since Aug. 31, the board majority has voted, with trustees Gilbert Rodriguez and Stacey Alderete dissenting, to publicly reprimand Puig for “dereliction of his employment duties to the board of the trustees” and “violations of the district’s school board procurement policies.” The board majority also has voted to commission an external audit of Puig’s expenditures since he started in May 2020.
Moreover, the board majority voted to request documents from J. Cruz & Associates “related to the superintendent’s procurement” of the law firm and to deliver those documents to the external auditors. Puig hired the firm earlier this year to investigate Felipe Barron III, the district’s head football coach, whom Puig placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation.
In a rebuttal letter to the reprimands, Puig wrote that his contract requires him to attend all board meetings, except closed meetings in which trustees discuss his employment or resolve conflicts among themselves. He stated he did not abandon his duties to the board at the Aug. 18 meeting — as the first reprimand states — when he left the closed session after trustees began “raising their voices, using foul language, aggressive posturing, and hurling personal disparagements” over personnel actions Puig took against Barron.
“Feeling threatened, I left the closed session during such heated exchange to allow the board members to discuss and resolve the obvious conflicts between the board members involved,” Puig wrote in the rebuttal letter.
He also wrote that district policy gives Puig the authority to hire investigators to conduct inquiries of complaints, which is what Puig did when he hired the law firm to investigate Barron.
In October, TEA Deputy Commissioner for Governance and Accountability Jeff Cottrill told board members that the statutory violations unearthed by the state investigation “persist to plague this school system and harm kids.”
“I want to make crystal clear that this is something that isn’t dated. This isn’t something that’s in the past,” he said at the October meeting. “We have what I would classify as exceptionally egregious allegations of governance, dysfunction, and statutory violations in this school system.”
Cottrill had attended the October meeting to introduce Saavedra to the board. Saavedra previously served as South San ISD superintendent from January 2014 to October 2018 and as Houston ISD superintendent from 2004 to 2009. As the monitor, Saavedra must work with the board and district to identify issues that led to the noncompliance and report back to the TEA.