HISD board members before leaving for closed session on June 13, 2019.
Harlandale ISD board members convene before closed session on June 13. Credit: Stephanie Marquez / San Antonio Report

The Texas Education Agency notified Harlandale Independent School District on Tuesday that it will disband its elected leadership and appoint a governing board as the result of an investigation into procurement practices, board dysfunction, and financial mismanagement.

The notification of sanctions from Commissioner of Education Mike Morath follows a TEA report on June 7 that concluded the district’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. The letter notified the district that a board of managers and new superintendent will be appointed along with a conservator, who can override board decisions.

Morath named Judy Castleberry, who previously acted as a conservator in South San Antonio ISD, as the new conservator for the district located on San Antonio’s South Side.

With Morath’s decision, San Antonio becomes home to three of the five districts statewide – out of more than 1,000 – with a state-controlled governing structure.

The letter notified Harlandale ISD of Morath’s decision to lower Harlandale’s accreditation status to accredited-warned. It also notified the district that Morath will appoint a new superintendent, board of managers, and conservator.

In the letter, Morath said the actions were taken “because the district exhibits serious or persistent deficiencies that may lead to the probation or revocation of the district’s accreditation if not addressed because the breakdown in governance may impact academic and financial performance.”

Most of the district’s state-appointed managers will come from the Harlandale community, Morath wrote. He plans to announce his appointments in a future letter.

The district can request a formal review of Morath’s decision by July 9 at 5 p.m. The review process could take roughly a month and Morath is expected to begin recruiting and interviewing potential managers at the same time.

“Obviously, the District is disappointed by the Commissioner’s conclusions,” Harlandale ISD spokesman Albert Rosales wrote in an e-mail. “The District’s Board of Trustees will meet in the near future to discuss the Commissioner’s letter and weigh the District’s options.”

Now that the official notice of sanctions has been sent, school board President Ricardo Moreno said the district can move forward and explore their options. The board will likely meet sometime next week to talk through what options are available, he said.

“I respectfully disagree with the notice but we are going to do whatever we can to ensure we are … in a position to be successful to make sure our kids are in a position of success,” Moreno said.

A school district attorney previously said Harlandale ISD likely will appeal the decision to the commissioner of education through an administrative process. The district’s board met to dispute the report’s findings June 13.

“The final report is based largely on incidents that date back as far back as 2007 and concern the actions of school board members who have not served on our board for years,” Moreno said at the meeting, reading from a prepared statement. “It is unfair and frankly illogical to believe punitive measures, including removing this board, will correct alleged violations that are largely unconnected to the current trustees.”

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 last November and allowed the district to respond to the agency’s findings. The report released June 7 contains final conclusions and reiterates many of the initial findings.

A large portion of the report focuses on Harlandale’s relationship with Jasmine Engineering to oversee bond projects from 2006 to 2015. Trustees repeatedly amended its contract with Jasmine instead of soliciting new bids, the report states.

Jasmine Engineering applauded Morath’s decision in a written statement.

“The important actions Commissioner Morath is taking are in the best interests of the School District and the children they serve,” the statement said.

Installing a board of managers in place of elected trustees is viewed as the harshest penalty for school districts. Edgewood and Southside ISDs also have boards of managers and are transitioning back to elected control after the TEA observed improvements.

The TEA is investigating South San Antonio ISD’s governance practices and could also move to install a board of managers or conservator if the investigative findings call for sanctions.

Read TEA’s final report on Harlandale ISD here.

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.