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San Antonio ISD parts ways with in-district charter operator that allegedly misused district funds

A brick two-story school with a tree-lined ramp leading up  to it and a little free library outside.
Camille Phillips
Lamar Elementary near Brackenridge Park is one of four SAISD campuses run by the School Innovation Collaborative under an SB 1882 Partnership contract from 2020 until trustees voted to terminate the contract Thursday.

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The San Antonio Independent School District board of trustees voted Thursday evening to terminate the district's contract with an outside organization running four of the district’s schools.

SAISD officials said the School Innovation Collaborative broke the terms of its contract with the district — and mismanaged district resources — by placing two of its employees on SAISD’s payroll even though they were not working at SAISD schools.

Legal counsel for the School Innovation Collaborative disputed the allegation that it broke the contract but did not deny the employees were assigned tasks outside the scope of Bowden Academy, Lamar Elementary, Gates Elementary, and Cameron Elementary, the four SAISD schools under the Collaborative’s management.

SAISD Chief of Staff Toni Thompson presented the district administration’s findings to the trustees during a public hearing before the vote, followed by a response from the Collaborative, also known as SIC.

Thompson said one of the two employees at the heart of the dispute was listed as an assistant principal of one the SAISD schools while she was actually working to found a new school called TriPoint Academy.

TriPoint Academy is described on the school’s website as a “free, public microschool.” It is located inside SAISD’s boundaries but is not an SAISD school. It opened this summer.

Despite remaining on the SAISD payroll until her resignation on August 18th of 2023, she did not fulfill her duties or report to any of the four SAISD cohort campuses during the relevant time frame,” Thompson said. “Instead, it was learned that she was providing support to campuses in Benevides ISD and serving as the principal director of a newly established micro school called TriPoint Academy.”

Funding for their roles at these campuses was dispersed from budgets allocated to those campuses by the state for the partnership,” Thompson added. “The funding that was provided to these schools by the state was supposed to be used for the campuses and the students and staff that were being served and supported on those campuses.”

In her response, SIC legal counsel Denise Pierce said the nonprofit had listed its staff members as campus employees since the nonprofit took over management of SAISD schools three years ago.

“The reason we're here today is because of a compromise made by my client with San Antonio ISD previously to embed their staff members in the campus budgets,” Pierce said. “Instead of remitting to my client the actual full amount of the management fee it was owed to manage and oversee the campuses under contract, the administration's team worked out and agreed that S-I-C staff could be embedded and budgeted for within the campus budgets.”

“That enabled the district to manage the monies inside the district's coffers and enabled them to continue to have the control that they wanted over staffing patterns,” Pierce added.

However, when questioned by trustee Sarah Sorensen, Pierce said the compromise between SAISD’s previous administration and SIC was not a written agreement.

There is no writing that confirms that agreement,” Pierce said. “What confirms that agreement is our practice over the years that has not been questioned as well as our notice to the district of how we were going to be using our staff and no immediate refusal of that approach.”

SIC was created in 2019 to enable SAISD schools to access state funds through SB 1882 partnerships. Two of the nonprofit’s founding directors, Brian Sparks and Sonya Mora, were previously principals of the four schools.

Sparks was principal of Lamar Elementary before becoming network principal of both Lamar and Bowden Academy, and Mora was principal of Gates Elementary before becoming network principal of both Gates and Cameron.

According to a joint statement from SAISD and SIC, both entities have agreed to part ways and will ensure students are not impacted by the transition.

“The primary goal of both parties is to keep students at the forefront and facilitate a smooth and amicable transition allowing the campuses to thrive for the remainder of the school year,” the joint statement provided by SAISD said.

SAISD Superintendent Jaime Aquino outlined the allegations against SIC in a letter to parents on Monday.

In the letter, Aquino said SAISD “is prepared to step in and maintain the continuation of operation of the four Network schools.”

“We are united in our focus to ensure that all students receive what they need, when they need it, and that the funds allocated for our students are, in fact, devoted to our students,” Aquino told parents.

The School Innovation Collaborative and Executive Director Doug Dawson did not respond to TPR's requests for comment.

SIC’s board planned to hold its own hearing on the termination of the contract at 6:30 a.m. on Friday at 660 First Park Ten Blvd.

SAISD trustees voted unanimously to make the contract termination effective on Friday, and they said the termination agreement would also be available to the public on Friday.

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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.