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Harlandale ISD considers closing 4 elementary schools

A community member asks Harlandale Superintendent Gerardo Soto why they have to attend multiple meetings to ask questions.
Camille Phillips
A community member asks Harlandale Superintendent Gerardo Soto why they have to attend multiple meetings to ask questions about a proposal to close schools during a town hall March 7 at McCollum High school.

The Harlandale Independent School District is holding a series of town halls this month to discuss closing four elementary schools.

The district is facing a $12 million budget deficit this year and expects a similar deficit next year if cuts aren’t made.

At a town hall on Tuesday at McCollum High School, Superintendent Gerardo Soto said the district will have to lay off staff next spring if measures aren’t taken to reduce the budget now.

“If we wait and do nothing, next year our budget cannot sustain that staff anymore and they will be let go,” said Soto, adding that closing one or two schools won’t be enough to reduce the budget — it will have to be all four.

According to a demography study commissioned by the district, Harlandale has lost a quarter of its students since 2015, and it expects to lose another quarter by 2031. Harlandale is currently one of the larger school districts in south San Antonio, with about 12,000 students.

Soto said closing four elementary schools will help Harlandale make better use of existing employees and reduce the need to hire new teachers to replace the ones that quit.

“Because we're going to lose teachers. We're not going to hire more,” Soto said. “So, if 150 go out, we have 150 from our bank from those other schools. They don’t have to get interviewed.”

For instance, if two elementary schools each have 30 third graders this year, each school will need two third grade teachers to keep class sizes below 22 students. But if the 60 third graders in those two schools attend one elementary school next year, the district will only need three teachers instead of four to teach the same number of students.

The elementary schools currently being considered for closure are Columbia Heights, Vestel, Rayburn, and Morrill. However, administrators are gathering feedback from parents and staff at the town halls and through a QR code linked to an online feedback portal.

One suggestion already under consideration by the district is to close Carroll Bell instead of Vestal.

“One of the valid arguments was Avance [Head Start] is [at Vestal], and Avance spent tons of money for safety. They also added a playground. And behind Vestal we're about to do in early childhood center,” Soto said.

Harlandale also plans to close the Weitzel Center for students with disabilities, but Soto said that is to comply with a recommendation from the Texas Education Agency to transition those students to their home high schools. Best practice in special education is to place students in the least restrictive environment and include them with their peers.

Rather than leaving the buildings empty, the district plans to renovate them for other uses, including an expanded Care Center for mental health services and a new headquarters for the Harlandale Police Department. The district’s complete current plan for closing schools and using the buildings in other ways can be found here:

At Tuesday’s town hall, district officials originally asked community members to wait to ask questions at the board meeting, but after a protest about being forced to attend multiple meetings, Soto began answering questions.

Some parents were upset about their child’s school being closed. Others wanted more clarity about how the district spends its money.

Due to the way Texas distributes state and local funding, schools don’t get more money even when homeowners pay more property taxes due to an increase in property value. A funding formula decided by state lawmakers dictates how much funding school districts are owed based on student attendance. If Harlandale’s local property taxes increase, the state chips in less.

Community members interested in sharing their opinion on the proposal to close schools can sign up to speak at tonight’s board meeting. Soto recommended arriving by 5 p.m. at STEM Early College High School to sign up.

Harlandale will also hold a regular board meeting on March 20 and a final town hall on March 21 before putting the proposal to a board vote on March 27.

Texas Public Radio is supported by contributors to the Education News Desk, including H-E-B Helping Here, Betty Stieren Kelso Foundation and Holly and Alston Beinhorn.

Camille Phillips can be reached at camille@tpr.org or on Instagram at camille.m.phillips. 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.