© 2024 Texas Public Radio
Real. Reliable. Texas Public Radio.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

San Antonio ISD external review: 'Inadequate leadership’ was one reason for school heater failures

The outside of San Antonio ISD's new Central Office Building in September 2021.
Camille Phillips

The board of trustees for the San Antonio Independent School District voted on Monday to accept a final report on the district’s heating system failures in January.

The report was compiled by an ad hoc committee of SAISD employees and trustees and presented to the full board Monday evening. It included a list of reasons why the heater systems failed and a list of actions the district will take to correct the problems investigators discovered.

Tucked into the larger report was the long-promised external review of the heater failures.

The Texas Association of School Business Officials (TASBO) conducted the report and prepared it as a seven-page letter. It was dated nearly two months ago.

TASBO's director listed 10 reasons SAISD’s heaters failed, including “inadequate leadership, ineffective crisis planning, poor departmental culture, lack of documented procedures and processes, continued reliance on outdated HVAC systems, and lack of maintenance and preventative maintenance of equipment.”

“Leadership’s response to crisis management of this issue was ineffective at best,” TASBO Executive Director Tracy Ginsburg said in the letter to SAISD. “Based on a review of the documents, management at the department level and leadership of the district each have a genuine distrust of each other. The lack of effective leadership in the department over an extended period has led to mistrust within the department and contributed to a lack of pride in workmanship.”

TASBO's findings were based on documents provided by the district, not an independent investigation. However, some of its recommendations were included in the action report approved by the SAISD board Monday.

SAISD’s deputy superintendent of operations and chief of operations resigned after the heater failures. The external review did not identify anyone by job title or name, so it was unclear if those resignations resolved the trust issues identified by TASBO.

The larger ad hoc committee report found that SAISD did not “adequately prepare for the weather event” and “did not budget for ongoing equipment maintenance.”

“What we discovered was were working in a data poor environment. And that’s going to be really important as we look at recommendations,” said Trustee Leticia Ozuna, who led the ad hoc committee. “There were human failures, of course, but a lot of that was driven by process and then responding to a dearth of actionable information.”

In a video produced by the district and presented to the board Monday, Ozuna said the committee was “fully aware that our community needs to have confidence in our stewardship and in the integrity of administration and bond programs.”

“The board commits to lead with openness and a strategic, systemic approach to tackling our challenges,” she added. “The board is committed to reassuring our families and will continue to push all leaders — district, state, local, federal — for better results for academic outcomes and environments conducive to learning.”

The full committee report included eight recommendations, which district leadership said they were committed to fulfilling.

For instance, SAISD leaders will create a list of benchmarks to track equipment readiness by June. They will also purchase a computer program to track HVAC repairs and monitor HVAC systems within the next 12 months. The report also committed the board to including “an investment in school facility infrastructure that is based on reliable external data obtained from a facilities conditions assessment” in all future bonds. It also planned to reserve 5% of any future bonds for deferred maintenance.

A photo of HVAC equipment outside an SAISD school.
Courtesy photo
A photo of HVAC equipment at an SAISD school.

Budget issues

Both the external review and the larger ad hoc committee report acknowledged the ways funding contributed to the heater failures.

“The ad hoc committee kept in mind two underlying causes during its review,” district officials said in a news release. “These underlying causes included the underfunding of Texas public schools and the large number of aging buildings the district operates.”

The committee report said SAISD “did not budget for ongoing equipment maintenance” or for professional development for maintenance staff. And the external review listed “lack of budget funds or mismanagement of budget to support needed ongoing maintenance of equipment’ as one of the reasons the heaters broke down during the January freeze.

“In recent years budgets have become increasingly difficult to balance. However, the district’s facilities have suffered due to a lack of monetary resources to repair aging equipment,” Ginsburg said in the TASBO letter. “In the same manner, it appears that campus principals have been allowed to override the recommendations for repair and replacement of aging equipment in favor of other projects.”

During Monday’s board meeting Trustee Alicia Sebastian asked Superintendent Jaime Aquino if there was room in the budget to enact the committee recommendations.

“The board is committed, and the administration committed to prioritizing this, but it's not an issue that is going to be solved overnight,” Aquino said. He added that hat there would need to be a bidding process for the computer program and that it can take months for equipment to arrive after it is ordered.

“What I think the board and the administration can reassure the public is that you're going to see incremental progress,” Aquino said. “I am glad that the report acknowledged that this did not happen overnight. The magnitude of the problem and the cost of it also will not be solved overnight.”

Ongoing rightsizing

The ad hoc committee report also drew a line between the number of schools operated by the district and the district’s difficulties keeping up with maintenance.

“Expenditure per square footage falls below the national average. The board's rightsizing decision in November 2023 will partially mitigate this problem in the future, but it could not have done so in time to prevent this crisis,” Ozuna said in the video on the committee report.

The first recommendation approved by the board Monday was for the superintendent to conduct another study on “excess facility capacity” by November 2025 and to include in that study recommendations for more school closures if necessary.

Trustee Ed Garza, who was also on the ad hoc committee, emphasized that point during the board meeting.

“Our district must continue with urgency rightsizing so that our students and our teachers in our community can be in campus buildings that we feel confident can keep them cool when needed, can keep them warm when needed,” Garza said.

He added: “And honestly, I could not say that today, given, what we saw in [January], what we see in August, what we see every day. It's going to continue to happen unless we address the fundamental issue, which is the revenues and expenses that we see in our district and the enrollment and square footage that we have to manage and getting those numbers right.”

The ad hoc committee conducted its analysis in four phases, beginning with a reflection from the district’s executive leadership team followed by a staff-led assessment. The materials gathered from those two phases were provided to TASBO for the third phase, which was the external review.

In the months since the heaters failed, SAISD has conducted a needs assessment of the district’s HVAC systems. A campus-by-campus inventory of those needs was included in the committee report. More than 50 campuses are in the process of receiving HVAC upgrades as part of the 2020 bond.

SAISD Spokesperson Laura Short said that TASBO is slated to conduct two more phases of reviews in the coming months: a budget overview in the fall and a “boots on the ground analysis of [the district’s] HVAC” systems in 2025.

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.

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.