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South San School Board Faces Community Questions Head On

Camille Phillips
Texas Public Radio
South San resident Karla Gomez Sanchez asks district leaders a question during a community meeting Tuesday night.

Transparency and budget priorities are top of mind for residents of the South San Antonio Independent School District, as the district contemplates asking for a tax increase.

Parents, students and taxpayers were able to voice their concerns directly to district trustees and get immediate answers at an informal community meeting Tuesday night at Palo Alto College.

“We believe that some of the highest achieving school districts … have loud and active community members. When things are going wrong, we’re loud and active. When things are going right, we’re loud and active,” said San Antonio District 4 City Council member Rey Saldaña, who helped organize the event in conjunction with South San Kids First.

Participants discussed their concerns in small groups before taking turns asking the superintendent and the board questions.

South San resident and alum Karla Gomez Sanchez said her group is willing to pay more taxes, but wanted to know what the district was doing to prevent more students from leaving.

“If the student enrollment keeps declining steadily, what’s to say we’re not going to have to do this again in two years? And if you’re cutting programs and nurses and librarians and counselors, what is going to attract students?” she asked to applause.

South San has lost about 10 percent of its students in the past four years, dropping from a total enrollment of 10,014 in the 2013-2014 school year to 9,101 students this school year. The district expects to lose another 500 students next year, leading to a nearly $7 million budget shortfall.

Credit Camille Phillips / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
South San parent, Patricia De La Rosa, speaks during a table discussion Tuesday night as city council member Rey Saldaña looks on.

Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra said the district had not yet made any budget decisions, and that an earlier discussion about cutting nurses and counselors was just a way to look at options.

He said a little less than  half of South San's enrollment  decline was because students were leaving for charter schools and parochial schools. The district is trying to stem that loss by giving parents choices like the three middle school academies opening in the fall focused on science and technology, the arts, and health science.

“We want parents to select South San, the programs that we provide, as opposed to selecting something else,” Saavedra said.

He said the rest of the enrollment loss was because of limited housing in the district.

“We graduate a little over 500 students every year in the 12th grade. We don’t enroll 500 at the other end at the kindergarten or pre-k,” Saavedra said. “We need to be able to encourage more residential development in order to not lose them from that end.”

Another resident asked board members how they can be held accountable.

“The easy answer to that is you can vote in November,” said Trustee Edward Mungia, who the board appointed to fill a vacancy in January. “One of the things I promised was transparency. And so, me being here at this meeting and having all my colleagues here at this meeting is a step towards that.”

Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra answers a question at a community meeting April 18, 2018as board trustees Louis Ybarra (left), Elda Flores, Edward Mungia and Angelina Osteguin listen.
Credit Camille Phillips | Texas Public Radio
Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra answers a question at Tuesday night's community meeting as board trustees Louis Ybarra (left), Elda Flores, Edward Mungia and Angelina Osteguin listen.

After the meeting, Gomez Sanchez said she appreciated the opportunity to get answers, but she still has more questions for district officials.

“I didn’t get a lot of the answers I was hoping to get, and I don’t think I’m the only one to feel that way. But I am satisfied in knowing that the administration is aware that we are asking these questions and we do want answers,” Gomez Sanchez said.

Board President Angelina Osteguin, a South San alum, said trustees plan to hold several more community meetings in the coming months.

“It’s their school as much as ours, and yes we sit at the top and make the policy, but it’s needed to get their input so we’re not just making policy blindly,” Osteguin said.

The meeting was one of the community’s first chances to speak with board trustees now that the board has filled its last vacancy and regained their independence from the Texas Education Agency.

The state removed South San from the oversight of conservator Judy Castleberry in January after appointing her in 2016 to quell infighting on the board.

Four of the district’s seven board trustees attended Tuesday’s meeting: Osteguin, Mungia, Louis Ybarra and Elda Flores.

Camille Phillips can be reached at camille@tpr.org or on Twitter @cmpcamille