The San Antonio Independent School District Board of Trustees.
Board President Patti Radle (center) has been serving the people in her West Side district in multiple capacities for 50 years, Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

It is sad to learn that the teachers union for the San Antonio Independent School District is endorsing candidates to oppose the board’s president and one other member, as well as backing a critic of the board for an open East Side seat.

This, simply put, is the best board SAISD has had in at least 50 years. I’ve lived in the district for most of the past four decades and I could tell some stories. In fact, I have told some stories.

There was the school board member who took the most junkets of any of the trustees, yet hadn’t paid her school property taxes for years. She had repeatedly voted for the law firm of the late Oliver Heard to collect the district’s unpaid taxes, and the firm had neglected to go after her delinquent account.

“It fell through the cracks,” a spokeswoman for the firm told me with a straight face.

There was the time the board waited until the superintendent was out of town to post a last-minute agenda item to place a magnet school in each of the district’s eight high schools. Without any consultation or advance study, they then horse-traded which schools would get which themes for their magnets.

The trustee for Lanier High School on the West Side chose banking. Did he think a large number of 14-year-olds in his neighborhoods (or in any neighborhood) dreamed of being bankers? More likely were the rumors that his job was in danger of being eliminated with the closing of Kelly Air Force Base and he wanted to develop contacts with bankers.

There were also significant stretches of time that the district couldn’t pass bond issues because of the strong smell of corruption. There were cases where administrators were pressed to help raise campaign funds for board members, and getting to be a principal was based not on competence but on closeness to a trustee.

The current board did have one incident of corruption. A board member was indicted on federal bribery charges for taking gifts and trips from businessmen who received her vote for insurance contracts. She was acquitted, but only because a jury believed her testimony that she was too stupid to understand that they were bribes. She’s gone.

I’m not too worried that the union, the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel, is going to win the control over the board it seeks. The board president, Patti Radle, has been serving the people in her West Side district for 50 years, running a food pantry and a school for troubled dropouts, and leading other initiatives. When she ran for City Council in 2003 she was opposed by longtime SAISD trustee Tom Lopez and whipped him. Her performance at City Hall paved the way for her election to the school board, where she has served with great energy and skill. Her opponent can’t match her reputation or her history of service.

To oppose Christina Martinez, who works at Big Brothers Big Sisters and was appointed two years ago to replace her indicted predecessor, the union is backing a 19-year-old recent graduate of Edison High School, now a freshman at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He’s also a father. He has plenty on his plate without taking on the demands of a trustee of a large urban school district.

That the union can’t field a stronger slate is disturbing, but I’m more concerned about their criticism of the ambitious efforts by the board and Superintendent Pedro Martinez to improve the schools and better serve the students.

One of these is a collection of magnet programs and in-district charter schools that are attracting affluent families from outside SAISD. The union feels those seats should be reserved for SAISD students. But it is precisely for the benefit of its own students that SAISD is devising programs that can put them in classrooms with children from wealthier families.

Considerable research nationally indicates that economic integration is a powerful dynamic in improving academic success for students from low-income families while not having an adverse academic impact on children of wealthier families.

For SAISD, fostering economically diverse classes is challenging. Ninety percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch, and San Antonio neighborhoods are among the most economically segregated in the nation. That leads to one of the nation’s lowest rates of upward mobility, pointed out Mohammed Choudhury, SAISD’s chief innovation officer.

Simply establishing magnet schools and in-district charter schools is not what Choudhury considers innovation. The problem, he says, is that if you establish good programs and let the market decide who goes there, they will soon be filled with affluent students whose families have more social capital and sophistication than low-income families. So the programs he has set up are carefully engineered.

For one thing, a minimum of 50 percent of the slots go to students from low-income families. At CAST Tech High School and at the CAST Med School opening this fall, half the students can come from outside the district. The reason, he says, is that SAISD school district lines make it a segregated district economically. So lines need to be crossed.

The other “diverse-by-design schools” – such as Steele Montessori Academy, the Mark Twain Dual Language Academy, the Advanced Learning Academy, the Young Women’s Leadership Academy, and others – allow as many as 25 percent of their students to come from outside SAISD lines.

To engineer these mixtures, the district holds two lotteries for each school: One for students from economically disadvantaged families and one for students from more affluent families.

Choudhury says these schools don’t work simply because a poor kid is sitting next to an affluent kid. Integrated schools work because they have a constituency that demands high standards and holds school officials and teachers accountable.

It’s too early to measure the schools’ success but Choudhury, who has been here less than two years, claims the first such school he helped establish in Dallas four years ago, an elementary school named Solar Prep, has already closed the achievement gap between rich and poor kids and won an “A” rating in the latest state accountability round.

Of course, districts like SAISD can’t just improve the lot of lucky lottery winners. They also must improve the performance of low-income neighborhood schools. That’s a tougher, longer job than starting new schools. Choudhury and SAISD Board President Radle say they are making headway, but that’s a story for another day.

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Rick Casey

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.