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Education

Monitor To Oversee South San ISD Board After TEA Cites Them For ‘Overreach’

The South San ISD administrative buildings are also being used to house South San High School West Campus.
File Photo Camille Phillips | Texas Public Radio
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Officials with the Texas Education Agency notified the South San Antonio Independent School District Tuesday that the agency will be appointing a monitor to oversee the district.

The sanctions follow a two-year investigation into governance issues at South San. TEA’s governance and accountability office opened the investigation in April 2019, after the South San school board voted to rapidly reopen previously closed schools against the recommendation of the superintendent.

According to TEA investigators, the South San board violated the Texas Education Code by failing to “adequately collaborate with the Superintendent.” Investigators also found that individual trustees went beyond the scope of their authority by independently contacting district staff and outside consultants.

“Specific (board) members personally contacted staff directly to ask for information and to discuss district business such as discipline, and setting or changing Board agendas, all of which exhibited overreach,” TEA Deputy Commissioner Jeff Cottrill said in a letter sent to South San officials. “Individual trustees also contacted vendors, consultants, and other educational organizations on behalf of the District without the Superintendent’s knowledge.”

Cottrill said TEA’s monitor will oversee the development of a corrective action plan and ensure the district holds a public board meeting outlining the duties delegated to trustees in comparison to the duties delegated to the superintendent.

South San will be required to pay the monitor $85 an hour plus travel expenses.

A monitor reports district behavior to the state, but does not have the direct authority to override board decisions. South San was under the oversight of a state-appointed conservator from 2016 to 2018, following a previous investigation. Conservators have more authority than monitors, including the ability to override decisions made by district leaders.

In their final report, also released Tuesday, TEA investigators warned South San that further sanctions could take place if the district doesn’t “self-correct.”

“It should be noted that a series of events have occurred within the (district) during the time between when the informal review was conducted and the release of this report. These issues have not been formally investigated, were not the subject of the initial report, and the (district) has not been provided an opportunity to respond to the extent there might be additional violations of law or policy. As a result, any findings of any violations of law occurring after the release of the preliminary report are reserved,” investigators said.

South San held an unusual mid-year officer election May 24, appointing Ernest Arrellano Jr. board president in place of Gilbert Rodriguez. Closed session discussion items on the agenda during Tuesday night’s specially called board meeting included references to a volatile closed session earlier in the month.

South San trustees have until Sept. 14 to request an informal review of TEA’s decision to appoint a monitor. The district has exhausted all opportunities to contest the findings of the investigation itself.

Arrellano said Wednesday he and the rest of the board are still reviewing their options in discussion with their attorney.

“I just want to make it clear that the report that came out yesterday was from an investigation that was done prior to 2020, in 2019. So you know, whatever is occurring with South San currently is not reflected in that report,” Arrellano said, adding that he and one other trustee, Gina Villagomez, were first elected in 2020 and not interviewed as part of the investigation.

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“All the good things that have happened since (TEA interviewed trustees and district staff in 2019) are not reflected in that report,” Arrellano said. “It's not a reflection on Dr. Puig, our current superintendent, because in all actuality, he wasn't here either during that time frame.”

South San’s current superintendent, Marc Puig, was hired in the spring of 2020. The district was led by an interim superintendent during the 2019-2020 school year, after the board majority strongly encouraged their previous superintendent, Alexandro Flores, to resign. The three trustees in the board minority resigned immediately afterwards.

TEA already had a monitor in place at South San during its investigation. In May 2019, the monitor recommended the state return South San to the oversight of a conservator. Two months later, South San’s board approved a resolution “withdrawing their consent” for a monitor, arguing that she was a governance coach, not a monitor appointed due to sanctions. Under state accountability rules, TEA decides when to release a district from monitoring.

TEA has not announced who they will appoint to monitor South San in response to these new sanctions.

TPR was founded by and is supported by our community. If you value our commitment to the highest standards of responsible journalism and are able to do so, please consider making your gift of support today.