San Antonio ISD leaders say plans to close schools are about equity, not budget cuts
The San Antonio Independent School District held the first of 14 community meetings on school consolidation Thursday evening at Highlands High School.
Trustee Leticia Ozuna, who represents Highlands on the school board, told attendees that two decades of declining enrollment with minimal school closures has put the district at a crossroads.
According to an analysis by SAISD, only six Texas school districts have more schools than SAISD, even though SAISD has dropped from being the state’s 10th largest district in 2003 to the 24th largest in 2022.
“Those are two trend lines that right now we cannot reconcile. There is no horizon in any kind of future that's going to allow us to reconcile those,” Ozuna said. “This is an important conversation to have, and the time is right.”
SAISD is using the 14 meetings to gather feedback on the criteria it plans to use to decide which schools to close, and where those students should go. The district will hold a second round of community meetings after a preliminary list of school closures is presented to the board on September 18. The board plans to vote on final recommendations for closures on Nov. 13. The district plans to use the spring semester to iron out details for consolidating schools; no schools will be closed before the end of the 2023-2024 school year.
“Instead of paying an air conditioning bill in the future for an unutilized classroom space, I want to put it on our kids and on our coaches and on our teachers and on all of the support staff for our campuses,” Ozuna said. “That's the right place to put those resources.”
District leaders started the meeting with a presentation on the reasons school closures are needed and the criteria they propose using to decide which schools to close. Then participants were asked to walk around the room to different stations where they could learn more details and provide feedback.
At one station, community members could ask questions about the primary criteria the district plans to use to close schools: enrollment, building capacity, and how much the district spends per student to operate the school.
At another, participants placed stickers on profiles about the environment SAISD should create and the expectations SAISD should have for students, teachers, and classrooms. Red stickers showed disagreement, blue and green showed support.
The wide variance in how much it costs per student to operate a small school versus a large school is at the heart of the district’s proposal to close schools.
Campus employees Cindy and Sandra Jasso were among the many SAISD staff members that attended the meeting. They said they’ve experienced those inequities first hand as a teacher and an assistant principal at different schools.
“We're at totally different campuses,” Cindy Jasso said. “I'm at Young Women's Leadership (Academy) Primary, where we have a full-time art teacher, a full-time music teacher. We have a dance teacher.”
“I'm at Crockett Academy,” Sandra Jasso said. “While our enrollment is high, our resources are stretched really thin. So, the right sizing means a lot to me. It speaks to me and my students and their struggles and their needs, so I'm all for it.”
According to a district analysis, it spends around $14,000 per student to run its smallest elementary school, but only about $7,000 per student to run its largest elementary.
Superintendent Jaime Aquino said that means both large campuses and small campuses are losing out.
“Even though our smaller schools are more expensive to operate, they get less services. For example, they have split classes. We can't offer full-time music or full-time art. They don't have a full-time librarian. They don't have a full-time counselor,” Aquino said. “On the other hand, our larger schools are getting less resources per student because (that) money (is) going to subsidize the smaller schools.”
Split classes have two grade levels in one classroom. SAISD’s small schools also usually only have one teacher per grade. The district hopes that consolidation will let teachers have peers to collaborate with, and give students the options of moving classrooms if one teacher isn’t a good fit.
Aquino said consolidating schools will save money, but not a significant amount compared to the overall budget. He said the goal is to make better — and fairer — use of the district’s funding, not reduce how much it spends.
“There will be some saving. But that's not the main reason, because the saving for a budget our size is going to be insignificant. This is about what's right for our students, our family and our staff,” Aquino said.
Because the district’s goal is to distribute funding more equitably, not cut it, Aquino said he isn’t planning on laying off staff. He said employees will move with students to their new schools, and consolidations will also help with the district’s ongoing staffing shortages.
“I cannot stand in front of you and say that I 100% guarantee nobody will lose their job. What I am saying is that is very unlikely,” Aquino said.
SAISD’s next community meeting is Friday at 6 p.m. at Burbank High School. A full list of the meeting dates and locations can be found here.