The South San Antonio Independent School District board of trustees voted 4-2 Thursday night to commission an external audit of the superintendent’s expenditures, against the advice of a state-appointed monitor who was introduced to the board just hours earlier.

The Texas Education Agency assigned a monitor to South San ISD in August, following a two-year investigation that found school board members failed to cooperate with the superintendent and acted outside of their authority. Jeff Cottrill, TEA deputy commissioner for governance and accountability, introduced monitor and former South San superintendent Abelardo “Abe” Saavedra to the board Thursday.

In his remarks to the board, Cottrill said the statutory violations unearthed by the state investigation date back to 2018 but “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. “We have what I would classify as exceptionally egregious allegations of governance, dysfunction, and statutory violations in this school system.”

South San ISD Superintendent Dr. Marc Puig holds up an accountability report card while speaking during a board meeting on Thursday.
South San ISD Superintendent Dr. Marc Puig holds up an accountability report card while speaking during a board meeting on Thursday. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

Trustees Gilbert Rodriguez and Stacey Alderete cast the dissenting votes against the audit of spending by Superintendent Marc Puig. Trustee Gina Villagomez was absent for that part of the meeting.

The board also voted 4-2 to request documents from Juan Cruz & Associates “related to the superintendent’s procurement” of the firm and to deliver those documents to the external auditors. Puig hired the firm earlier this year to investigate Felipe Barron III, head football coach, whom Puig placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation.

In September, the board voted 5-2, with Rodriguez and Alderete again dissenting, to reprimand Puig for “violations of the district’s school board procurement policies” after he hired the firm. Puig said then that he did not violate policy because he hired the firm to look into a personnel matter, not to represent the board.

Rodriguez said the board majority’s votes to examine Puig’s expenses since he was hired in May 2020 were hypocritical “when these very actions are misappropriating taxpayer dollars.”

“There is absolutely no need for this board to take this action to this extent,” Rodriguez said. “You continue to attack the superintendent. You continue to retaliate. You continue to harass, and you’re taking him away from what we hired him to do,” which is to support students and staff.

Board President Ernesto Arrellano Jr. said the votes were not about “trust or distrust” but about actions taken by Puig that were “not proper in the board’s view” and for which the superintendent was reprimanded.

Alderete said the board spent $40,000 in legal fees last month and that she voted against the motions “at the advice of the monitor.”

As the monitor, Saavedra is tasked with working with the board and district “to identify issues that led to the noncompliance and report to the agency on the development of a corrective action plan to address the issues,” according to a letter from the TEA. That includes ensuring the board adopts policies that delineate trustee and superintendent duties, completes TEA-approved governance training, and presents the required policies at a public board meeting.

Unlike a conservator, a monitor does not have the authority to override board votes or direct the superintendent to take action.

From January 2014 to October 2018, Saavedra served as South San ISD superintendent, according to his Texas A&M University online profile. Saavedra is a professor of practice in the university’s education department. He also previously led Houston ISD from 2004 to 2009 and Corpus Christi ISD from 1993 to 2000.

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Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum covered education for the San Antonio Report.