Members of the SAISD Board of Trustees sit together for the 2015 Board Appreciation Day (from left): Arthur V. Valdez (D4), Debra Guerrero (D3), Steve Lecholop (D1), Board Vice President Olga Hernandez (D6), Board President Ed Garza (D7), Patti Radle (D5), and James Howard (D2).
Members of the SAISD Board of Trustees sit together for the 2015 Board Appreciation Day (from left): Arthur V. Valdez (D4), Debra Guerrero (D3), Steve Lecholop (D1), Board Vice President Olga Hernandez (D6), Board President Ed Garza (D7), Patti Radle (D5), and James Howard (D2).

First in a two-part series

Jan. 20 was a day of celebration at the Burnet Center at 406 Barrera St., the shuttered elementary school that now serves as the meeting place for board trustees of the San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD). Student jazz musicians and dancers from four district high schools entertained while district chefs served up sandwiches and desserts as part of the annual Board Appreciation Day.

After receiving a bouquet of yellow roses and original works of art from district students and applause from district employees, appreciative trustees then settled in for their semi-monthly board meeting. The leadership of San Antonio’s biggest inner city school district, which serves 53,811 students, 93% of them disadvantaged, had a lot to feel good about as it surveyed the progress of the past few years.

Trustees also had plenty to preoccupy them: They are deeply divided, philosophically and politically, as they undertake the search for a new superintendent. The new search comes less than two years after the last search ended disastrously, the latest in a decades-long sequence of school board-superintendent failed marriages that left the kids – in this case the district’s students – suffering the long-term consequences of divorce.

San Antonio is a city advancing on many fronts, but ask anyone involved in building a city attracting talented, skilled workers and they will tell you the urban core’s public schools are the big question mark. Today, the schools are not good enough for many parents who have a choice. Hire the right visionary free to make changes, and the schools could improve dramatically. Fail to recruit a national caliber education leader, and the consequences could reverberate through everything else the city does to grow and prosper.

The Good News

It’s easy to find fault with inner city school districts that serve underprivileged communities, where resources are scarce and the needs are great, a reality not always appreciated by people who did not live or work in the district. The good stories too often get crowded out by the bad news. As a journalist, district resident, and member of the SAISD Foundation Board, which raises private funds to provide direct grants to teachers and scholarships to students, I’ve seen lots of progress in recent years, but I’ve also experienced disheartening moments that left me shaking my head.

In visits to a number of the district’s high school and middle school magnet programs and in-district charter schools, I have met many highly effective teachers and administrators doing great work as they prepare students for college and, ultimately, a more productive and fulfilling life. Most of the students I’ve met in these programs are the first in their families to even think about attending college. These students are disciplined, focused and confident, in stark contrast to the much larger general student population from which they are drawn, where too many students lack the confidence, skills and ambition to pursue higher education. 

Teacher Nina Slote shapes young scientific minds at Young Women's Leadership Academy. Photo by Bekah McNeel.
Teacher Nina Slote shapes young, scientific minds at Young Women’s Leadership Academy. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

Since 2008, the district has embraced greater innovation, opening new magnets, charters, and specialized schools. The payoff has been greater choice for families and improved outcomes for students, and made the district more attractive to young professionals who live and work in the urban core and have school age children.

Building on the success of one of those in-district charter schools, the Young Women’s Leadership Academy, SAISD officials began accepting applications last month for the new Young Men’s Leadership Academy, set to open for the 2015-16 academic year in the soon-to-be vacated W.W. White Elementary School.

(Read more: Coming Soon: Young Men’s Leadership Academy.)

The SAISD dropout rate was 26% at the end of the 2006-07 school year. It fell to 12% by the end of the 2012-13 school year, according to the most recent state-audited numbers. Subtract performance of the district’s three alternative campuses, which serve the most academically and socially troubled students, and the dropout rate has fallen below 10% for the first time in district’s  history.

More of the district’s students (83%) are graduating on time (four years after entering high school), fewer students are dropping out, fewer young women are getting pregnant, and more students are opting into post-graduation technical schools or college preparatory programs.

“We like the trajectory we are on,” said Leslie Price, executive director of communications for the district. “Five of our high schools graduated more than 90% of their students in four years.”

Voters approved a record $515 million bond in November 2010 for badly needed campus improvements. That bond has not been without controversy, including its out-sourced management and cost and time overruns. The work, however, is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2015, except for the complete rebuilding of Highlands High School, which will be finished in 2016.

Most of the campuses still can’t compete with suburban schools, either in terms of physical facilities or technology offerings, but the bond has given the district a much needed physical, technological and morale-boosting facelift.

The Challenges Are Significant

For all the good news, major hurdles are an everyday reality. Half of the students who do graduate are not college ready. The district’s operating budget is vastly inadequate, dependent on a low tax base in a district with a low socio-economic base, and made worse because of older, undervalued buildings and properties on the tax rolls, which means their owners contribute little to the welfare of public school students.

In Texas, the education a student receives is defined in large part by the property values in his or zip code, a funding system that the courts have ruled unconstitutional several times over the years and as recently as last August. The state, as it always does, has appealed the ruling, and there is nothing to indicate the Texas Legislature will seriously address the promise this session.

Four years after cutting billions of dollars out of the state’s public education budget, legislators are expected to restore only some of the cut funding. As the Texas Tribune has reported, the Texas Supreme Court might not issue a ruling on the school funding case until 2016.

Population flight over the last four decades has left the district with too many schools: 91 campuses serve about 54,000 students. The Northeast Independent School District, by comparison, has 68,206 students spread over 68 campuses. Maintaining so many campuses drains SAISD resources that otherwise would be spent on technology and building upgrades at the remaining schools. Closing schools, however, can change the face of a neighborhood, and district residents have rebelled against closures. Faced with such pushback, the SAISD board has capitulated.

Brewer, Nelson, Steele and W.W. White elementary schools are scheduled to close at the end of the current 2014-15 school year, and Austin Academy will close at the end of 2015-16, despite protests from parents who believe the school is making a real difference. New boundaries are scheduled to go into effect next school year. Consolidating high schools, however, has proven to be a far greater challenge.

The special schools and programs only serve a fraction of the district’s students. Transformation and improved education outcomes have not come so quickly to the rest of the district. Two cultures exist side-by-side within the district, on the school board, inside school hallways and in the student population. One is a culture of poverty, complacency and acceptance of the status quo, the other a culture of ambition and achievement.

Education leaders know the district will have to change its practices to continue improving its education outcomes, yet resistance to change is deeply rooted and outside influences can be threatening and unwelcome.  That cultural and vision divide starts on the school board and permeates downward throughout the system. Nowhere is that divide more evident than in the board’s search for a new superintendent, and that has community and civic leaders worried.

How History Influences the Search for a New Superintendent

SAISD Interim Superintendent Sylvester Perez
SAISD Superintendent Sylvester Perez

The board’s seven trustees have set a goal of recruiting and hiring a new superintendent before school board elections on May 9 when three of the board’s seven trustees will be up for re-election. Dr. Sylvester Perez, the current superintendent, has announced plans to retire at the end of the academic year in June. Dr. Perez is a 40-year veteran administrator who came out of retirement to accept the SAISD position on an interim basis in March 2012 and was hired on a permanent basis in June 2013. The SAISD post is the fifth district he has led as a superintendent, and he says, his last.

Perez has served as a calming influence after a period of crisis. He has an outgoing personality and the confidence of someone who doesn’t have to worry about his job status. I was one of many who questioned his hiring two years ago and have been proven wrong. He’s respected by principals and teachers, and he has managed a school board that remains divided philosophically. He isn’t a change agent with transformative ideas, but he has been a much-needed leader with management skills who has steadied the district.

The school board’s challenge now is to recruit a superintendent who can execute the district’s lofty ambitions into results. Board members authored a new mission statement in 2012: To transform SAISD into a national model urban school district where every child graduates and is educated so that he or she is prepared to be a contributing member of the community.

To achieve that level of performance, the board will have to overcome its own history of poor governance, resistance to change, and a tradition of entrenched trustees wielding undue political influence in the district and paying too little attention to education outcomes. Perhaps no other school board in the state seems so beholden to the powerful state teachers union, the Texas Federation of Teachers, which opposes teacher performance reviews and other reforms.

The teachers union is, perhaps, more responsible than any other element in the public school system for the rise of independent charter schools that are now competing for district students and state education dollars, schools like KIPP: San Antonio, IDEA Public Schools, Great Hearts Academy, BASIS Schools and CARPE DIEM San Antonio, the latter of which will open a campus in fall 2015.

IDEA Public School students participate in a small group instruction, a fundamental of IDEA's elementary academic model. Photo courtesy of IDEA.
IDEA Public School students participate in a small group instruction, a fundamental of IDEA’s elementary academic model. Photo courtesy of IDEA. Credit: Courtesy / IDEA Public Schools

No former SAISD trustee fits that description better than its former school board president, Thomas Lopez, a Lanier High School and Our Lady of the Lake University graduate, retired military officer and Lackland AFB civilian worker. Lopez was first elected to the school board in 1982 and, with one brief hiatus, stayed in power nearly 30 years until 2011. He chose not to run again when current District 5 Trustee Patti Radle, a former teacher and the longtime co-director of Inner City Development, announced her candidacy. Radle had defeated Lopez in an earlier City Council election.

Thomas Lopez
Thomas Lopez

Throughout the Lopez era, he and the board majority – not the superintendent – ran the district, or tried to run the district. That began to change with the election of Dr. Julián Treviño as the District 1 trustee in 1996. Treviño, a retired SAISD teacher and administrator, with his wife, Diana, until last year owned and managed El Mirador restaurant in King William, a popular gathering spot for politicians, lawyers, journalists and professionals from all walks of life.

Treviño ran with the support of his network of influential customers and some of San Antonio’s most civic-minded business leaders, including H-E-B Chairman and CEO Charles Butt, Frost Bank Chairman Tom Frost Jr., and Zachry Corp. Chairman Bartell Zachry Jr., three of the city’s best known civic leaders who had taken a heightened interest in using their influence and resources to improve public education outcomes. Lopez and other trustees allied with him saw such interest as meddling, even though the companies were based in the district. In the case of H-E-B, the fast-growing grocery company is the district’s largest employer and taxpayer, Butt is a longtime resident of the district in King William. H-E-B headquarters is located just across the San Antonio River in the once-abandoned U.S. Army Arsenal that the company historically restored and expanded. Those headquarters are only a few block away from the SAISD headquarters.

Julián Treviño
Julián Treviño

Treviño eventually became board president and was re-elected in 2000 and 2004. Under his watch, the board began to adopt better governance practices and achieve more consensus on a range of education issues. It behaved more professionally.

Treviño brought a sense of dignity and adult comportment to a board better known for trustees arriving unprepared for the agenda, often resorting to bickering among themselves or engaging in long rambling soliloquies. Meetings often extended late into the night, decisions left for another time.

How to hire and manage superintendents, however, remained an item of contention, even under Treviño, who had to manage a board that included Lopez, the former president and those trustees who continued to fall under his influence. Today, Treviño is senior lecturer at UTSA’s College of Education and Human Development and an education consultant with the Houston law firm of Thompson & Horton, which also is the state’s leading search firm for public school superintendents.

Recruiting superintendents with proven records to lead inner city school districts is always a challenge. Statewide, there are 67 superintendent positions open in Texas as of Feb. 5, from large districts like SAISD, Austin ISD and Spring Branch ISD outside Houston, down to small town school districts. Superintendents average less than four years on the job, a measure of public school board performance that undoubtedly contributes to the crisis in public education in Texas today.

Recruiting good leaders is an even greater challenge for the SAISD board, given the district’s history of board-superintendent conflicts that have led to a lack of continuity, expensive contract buyouts, and negative publicity. Lopez, for example, served as board president in 1998 when the board bought our Superintendent Diana Lam’s contract, which cost the district $781,000. Beyond the cost, the incident is memorable for two reasons. One is that Lam, an education leader with strong reform ideas and a national reputation, was hired in 1994 by a 4-3 vote, a vote outcome that doomed her tenure and the kind of divided vote that continues to occur to the present day. Second is what Lopez told the Express-News after the buyout as the board began to look for her replacement:

“Let me assure you, when it comes to a (superintendent) search, this board is going to be very unified,” Lopez pledged.

After going more than a year without a permanent superintendent, the board hired Dr. Rubén Olivárez, a Dallas public schools administrator, in December 1999. His hiring was followed one month later by a scathing report issued by state Comptroller Carol Keeton Rylander that chronicled the SAISD board’s financial mismanagement practices and the district’s ranking as one of the state’s very worst. Olivárez promised to embrace Rylander’s report as a template for change, and during his tenure he did bring the district back from the brink. Education outcomes, however, remained dismal. Olivárez, who stayed in the job until 2006, did not come with a plan for ambitious change. He thus lasted longer than his predecessor. Today he is a professor at UT-Austin’s College of Education and an education consultant who works with search firms.

The history is important because board divisions between defenders of the status quo and reformists that grew out of the 1990s continue to play out in the current search. Both Treviño and Olivárez are associated with different search firms that were among the four the board decided to interview late last year. Their individual histories and relationships with the current board’s longest-serving trustees played a telling, if largely invisible role in the outcome. How that happened will be explored in the second part of this series to be published Saturday.

Robert Durón
Robert Durón

Olivárez, meanwhile, was replaced by a highly respected reformer, Dr. Robert Durón, who served from 2006-12, but was forced out amid board-administration conflict. The district’s dropout rate improved considerably during Durón’s tenure, and voters approved the $550 million bond package. But there also was community resistance to his efforts to close and consolidate high schools and other campuses. He clashed with Board President Garza over a $35 million renovation of Alamo Stadium intended to make the venue suitable for a professional soccer team. Garza won that battle and bond money was used to make the improvements. Community opposition to district involvement in pro sports put an end to that initiative, but a revitalized Alamo Stadium, rich in high school sports history, has come to serve as a symbol of district pride.

SAISD Superintendent Dr. Sylvester Perez poses in front of the new scoreboard at Alamo Stadium. Photo by Scott Ball.
SAISD Superintendent Dr. Sylvester Perez in front of the new scoreboard at Alamo Stadium. Photo by Scott Ball.

Dr. Perez, a runner-up for the job when Durón was hired in 2006, arrived on the scene as an interim appointment after Durón’s departure and after the board’s next attempt at recruiting new leadership blew up in a surprise public relations mess.

Before Perez was hired, five of the seven current trustees were involved in the superintendent search process that began in 2012 and ended in failure in 2013 after the board finally settled on a lone finalist, a Tucson, Arizona public schools superintendent named Manuel Isquierdo. The candidate was forced to withdraw on the eve of his hiring after local media disclosures that he owed $150,000 in unpaid federal income taxes, had been forced to repay more than $12,000 to the district after using a district credit card for personal purchases, and was caught up in a grand jury investigation over misallocation of school laptops.

“I thought the process actually worked that time,” said Board President Ed Garza in a recent interview. “That’s why we have a 21-day waiting period before a lone finalist is hired, which gives us time to see what surfaces. In that case, we didn’t make a bad hire. We avoided one.”

True, but trustees could have done what reporters did, and that was run Isquierdo’s name through a search engine and then make a few calls. They would have discovered the same damaging information long before their 7-0 vote to make him the district’s next superintendent. Instead, they were left to convince Perez to take the job and buy the district time before it began another search.

Steve Lecholop
Steve Lecholop

“The selection of a superintendent is the most important decision that school boards make, and it’s essential for school districts to conduct a transparent search inclusive of community input from all sectors,” said Trustee Steve Lecholop (D1), a practicing attorney elected in May 2013 on a reform agenda. “For SAISD in this search, transparency is especially important given the board’s recent history and the general lack of faith the public has in the board arising from a recent history of poor decisions in this area.”

When I interviewed Trustee Debra Guerrero (D3) about the current search process, she echoed Lecholop’s words, which carry added weight since she was elected to the board in 2011 and witnessed the Isquierdo debacle.

SAISD Trustee Debra Guerrero
Debra Guerrero

“This is the most important decision the board will make because this is about the future of our city,  the future of our workforce, and the future of our district,” Guerrero said. “This decision will influence the direction of the city for the next five, 10, 15 years. It’s going to take all of us as a team to work together to achieve the right outcome.”

Unanimous agreement would elude the San Antonio school board once again when it met in December three times over two weeks to interview the four search firms and select one to recruit the next superintendent. The final vote was 4-3.

Coming next: How the failed 2012-13 search cast a shadow on the current search.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Manuel Isquierdo was selected as lone finalist by a 4-3 vote. The vote was 7-0.

The SAISD Board of Trustees

(listed by rank and years of service)

District 7 – Current term ends in May 2017

Ed Garza
Ed Garza

Board President Ed Garza, who served as mayor of San Antonio from 2001-05, was elected to the SAISD board in 2009. He is a graduate of Jefferson High School and has an undergraduate degree in landscape architecture and a graduate degree in public administration from Texas A&M University. Garza spoke to me for this series.

The two longest-serving trustees are up for re-election in San Antonio’s May 9 city elections.

District 6 – Current term ends in May 2015

SAISD Board Vice President and District 6 Trustee Olga Hernandez
Olga Hernandez

Board Vice President Olga Hernandez, a lifelong district resident and retired SAISD employee, was elected to the board in 2006. She has a high school degree and is on record as saying that any new superintendent should speak Spanish, which some past trustees believe is code for opposing non-Hispanic candidates. Like Garza, she is a Jefferson graduate. Hernandez declined a request to be interviewed, saying Garza would speak for her on any question surrounding the search for a new superintendent.

Hernandez is seeking re-election and  has drawn an an opponent in the May 9 elections: Scott Meltzer, the deputy director of Rackspace Chairman Graham Weston’s 80/20 Foundation. Meltzer, who has an undergraduate degree in sociology from Centre College and is pursuing a graduate degree in education leadership  from St. Mary’s University, is a former staffer with Communities in Schools, the highly-regarded anti-dropout program, and a former employee of City Year, the community service volunteer corps.

District 2 – Current term ends in May 2015

James Howard
James Howard

James Howard was elected to the board in 1998 and is the longest-serving trustee. He was the district’s first African-American board president, a position he relinquished to Garza after the former mayor’s election to the board in 2009. Howard is a retired state teachers union worker with a degree in music education from Prairie View A&M University.  Howard is expected to seek re-election. He has not drawn an opponent. Howard did not respond to my interview requests.

District 5 – Current term ends in May 2015

Former District 5 City Councilmember Patti Radle. Photo courtesy of SA2020.
Patti Radle

Patti Radle, who served on City Council from 2003-07, was first elected in 2011. She is a former SAISD teacher with undergraduate degrees in English and bilingual certification from Our Lady of the lake University, and for more than 40 years she and her husband, Rod Radle, have operated Inner City Development, a non-profit community organization that serves the Westside.  Radle’s first two years overlapping with Garza’s final term as mayor.  Radle is running for re-election and has not drawn an opponent. Radle spoke to me for this series.

District 3 – Current term ends in May 2017

Debra Guerrero was appointed to fill Trustee Carlos Villarreal’s unexpired term in 2012 and elected to a full term in 2013. She, too, is a former City Council member (1997-2001) who works in the San Antonio office of NRP, a national multifamily residential developer. She has an undergraduate degree in political science from St. Mary’s University, a graduate degree in public affairs and a law degree from UT-Austin. Guerrero spoke to me for this series.

District 1 – Current term ends in May 2017

Steve Lecholop was elected in 2013 and is a practicing attorney with the Rosenthal Pauerstein Sandoloski Agather law firm. He has an undergraduate degree in finance from UT-Austin, a masters in teaching from Johns Hopkins University, and a law degree from Southern Methodist University. He is a former teacher and an alumnus of the Teach for America program. Lecholop spoke to me for this series.

District 4 – Current term ends in May 2017

Arthur Valdez
Arthur V. Valdez

Arthur V. Valdez also was elected in 2013. He is a graduate of Burbank High School, where he attended technical and vocational classes before enrolling in Alamo Colleges and earning a two-year degree. Now retired, Valdez proudly cites that vocational training as key to him winning assignment in the Air Force as an electronics specialist, and then going on to a 40-year career as an aircraft systems engineer with Boeing and Boeing contractors. Valdez spoke to me for this series.

*Featured/top image: Members of the SAISD Board of Trustees sit together for the 2015 Board Appreciation Day (from left): Arthur V. Valdez (D4), Debra Guerrero (D3),  Steve Lecholop (D1), Board Vice President Olga Hernandez (D6), Board President Ed Garza (D7), Patti Radle (D5), and James Howard (D2).

Related Stories:

The Power of SAISD Fathers in Action

Coming Soon: Young Men’s Leadership Academy

All-Girl College Prep Turning Heads in San Antonio, Producing Tomorrow’s Leaders

 Teach for America, SAISD Foundation Make Music Together

Inspire Awards Highlight SAISD Excellence

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.