Officials with the San Antonio Independent School District are rallying supporters in anticipation of ongoing pushback from groups that don’t like the direction they’re taking the district.
At a luncheon Wednesday, Superintendent Pedro Martinez and board President Patti Radle told business and community leaders that SAISD is trying to do a better job communicating with the public, and asked for help telling positive stories about the changes underway.
“We need help as we talk about our results over the summer,” Martinez said. “The resistance, right now, it is going to continue to grow. It’s not going to go away. And I think, sadly, I underestimated it.”
The relationship between district officials and the teachers union has soured over the past few months.
The first blow: signing a contract with a New York-based charter operator to run Stewart Elementary. The partnership with Democracy Prep gives SAISD a two year reprieve from tough state sanctions, but it also opens up the possibility of the charter operator taking over more schools.
Then the divide spread even further when the district told 132 teachers they would be losing their jobs at the end of the school year to help reduce a $31 million budget shortfall.
At the luncheon last week, Martinez said SAISD is at a pivotal moment in a turnaround he has been working towards since he was hired three years ago.
“It takes at least five to 10 years to turn around a system, and — a system that’s as low as us — it’s probably going to be closer to the latter year,” Martinez said. “The third and fourth years are always the toughest. ... Wherever the power bases are at — you start seeing them rise up.”
Over the past three years, Martinez and board trustees have opened several new specialty schools that offer tuition-free enrollment to all Bexar County residents, even if they live outside the district’s boundaries.
In board meetings, news conferences and public events such as the luncheon, they describe those decisions as part of a vision to improve academic outcomes and reverse decades of declining enrollment.
“Parents vote with their feet,” said Martinez, pointing to the popularity of SAISD’s specialty schools. “They don’t have time for drama.”
Teachers and union members who spoke during board meetings described the contract with Democracy Prep as a step towards a corporate takeover, and a step away from a publicly accountable, democratically-elected school board.
“I pride myself to think that I work for a district whose first priority is compassion and well being of the children in a true public school setting,” said Stewart Elementary teacher Vanessa Ibarra in January. “Bringing in Democracy Prep — a charter company — goes against everything I truly believed this district stood for.”
Shelley Potter, the president of the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel, which represents the district’s teachers, said many parents and community members have come to the union over the past few months expressing concern that their neighborhood schools will go away.
“One of the things that has always been so strong in SAISD is the interconnectedness between our schools and the neighborhoods that our schools serve,” Potter said. “There are many people in the community who feel like this current administration is dismantling and pulling apart the very fabric of our neighborhoods with what they are doing to our schools.”
Despite that philosophical divide, board President Patti Radle said Wednesday that she hopes trustees can work with the union.
“We are not entering a battle except with a couple of elements, and one is low expectations. We are fighting low expectations and we are fighting mediocrity,” Radle said. “Our battle is to get to the best possible place for our students, and we will not be deterred by people who are not ready for our change. We will listen and we will be reflective, and we look forward to a day where people who are resistant will come together with us.”
Potter sees it differently. She said no one has higher expectations for students than union teachers.
“I think there is a lack of understanding on the part of the board and the superintendent about what the resistance is about. The resistance is about lack of transparency and the resistance is about lack of community and employee voice,” Potter said. “The situation with Democracy Prep at Stewart Elementary is an example of that, but there are certainly many other examples.”
The Alliance filed a lawsuit last month seeking an injunction against the Democracy Prep takeover. The hearing to determine the merits of the lawsuit is scheduled for June 1.
Camille Phillips can be reached at Camille@tpr.org or on Twitter @cmpcamille