A student runs through the hallways of Democracy Prep at Stewart Elementary.
A student runs through the hallways of Democracy Prep at Stewart Elementary in 2018. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Pedro Martinez has brought an evangelical zeal to his work as the superintendent of San Antonio’s largest inner city school district over the last six years, an impressive tenure for any public school superintendent and one made possible by school board trustees whose aligned focus is to elevate education outcomes.

Those six years have been marked by innovation, experimentation, and establishing a districtwide expectation of high performance. The results? Declining dropout rates, increases in the number of college-bound students supported by more scholarships, and improving state accountability grades for many individual campuses and the district itself.

Such change does not come without pain and without mistakes along the way, but as a resident of the district and a longtime observer, I speak for many when I say the transformation underway has exceeded expectations and often been downright inspiring. Voters have rewarded such performance by reelecting trustees and approving record-level bond elections to improve, literally, every school campus in the district.

Superintendent Pedro Martinez gives the annual SAISD State of the District hosted by the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce at the Pearl Stable in February. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Strong, unified leadership eluded the San Antonio Independent School District for decades and is absent today in several of the smaller inner-city school districts, all of which serve a majority of families of color who live and work in poverty. Until San Antonio solves its public education shortcomings there is no chance it will overcome the epidemic level of poverty.

Martinez and the current school board led by President Patti Radle are now under threat as the May 1 City and school board elections approach, with early voting slated for April 19-27. The San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel, commonly referred to as the teachers union, seeks to wrest control of the school board by unseating three incumbent trustees and winning the vacant District 3 seat. The plan is to seize a controlling majority on the seven-member board.

Martinez himself serves at the pleasure of the school board and is not elected, but in a sense, it is his leadership that voters will be asked to affirm or reject when they cast their votes. Union candidates have not publicly said their goal is to fire Martinez, but union leadership is antagonistic at best toward him and the school board. Why else seek to take over the school board?

“A line has been drawn in the sand to say to the voter, ‘Do you like the direction that the district is going or do you not?’” District 7 Trustee Ed Garza told Brooke Crum, the San Antonio Report’s education reporter. Garza, a former San Antonio mayor, has been on the board for 12 years and preceded Radle as its president. The Jefferson neighborhood resident faces an opponent for the first time in eight years.

Radle herself lamented in a meeting last week with the San Antonio Report that the teacher’s union seems only to hold “antagonistic” positions toward the board and is unwilling to collaborate on efforts to improve education outcomes.

The teachers union has an important mission in advocating for teachers in a state where they are underpaid, overworked, and too often blamed for society’s ills that stand in the way of the most vulnerable students achieving. Teacher welfare is certainly an important obligation of the school board, but its larger mission is to put the education and preparation of students above all other considerations.

Putting a union-backed majority in charge of the district is a bad idea. The current board members have shown an exceptional devotion to good governance, ending decades of micromanagement, interference, dysfunction, and corruption by their predecessors. The union’s candidates lack any grounding in governance. Their campaigns are grounded in politics rather than public service.

The three targeted trustees – Garza, District 1 trustee and attorney Steve Lecholop, and District 4 trustee Arthur Valdez, a retired aircraft engineer who owns an airline engineering consulting firm – all deserve to continue as members of a diverse, dynamic team of community leaders serving on the board.

Crum’s March 19 article details the individual district races.

If there was a single triggering incident leading to the present situation, it was the decision in 2018 by Martinez and the school board to turn over the district’s worst-performing school, Stewart Elementary School, to Democracy Prep, a New York-based charter school. The Eastside school had drawn failing grades for five consecutive years under the state’s school performance standards and was threatened with closure. 

A member of the San Antonio Alliance for of Teachers and Support Personnel holds up a sign in protest of Democracy Prep taking over Stewart Elementary School.
A member of the San Antonio Alliance for of Teachers and Support Personnel holds up a sign in protest of Democracy Prep taking over Stewart Elementary School in 2018. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

When longtime union President Shelly Potter retired in 2020, Hillcrest Elementary teacher Alejandra Lopez was elected to a four-year term. Lopez was a second-grade teacher at Stewart at the time of the Democracy Prep takeover.

It’s particularly notable that Burbank High School teacher Luke Amphlett, who is married to Lopez, is running to unseat Valdez in District 4. His election, in effect, would give Lopez as union president a seat on the school board in what seems to be a clear conflict of interest.

School board elections attract few voters, yet the outcomes matter enormously in the life of a community. That has never been so true as it is this election season. Voters will decide whether to continue on a forward path of transformation or backpedal to an era when political agendas defined the school board and reverberated down into every campus and classroom.

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.