During an at times contentious school board meeting last Thursday, opposing viewpoints over reopening three schools took center stage in the South San Antonio Independent School District.
The day before, trustees had voted 4-3 to approve a resolution to reopen three closed schools next fall: Athens Elementary, Kazen Middle School and West Campus High School.
The meeting was the first in a series of discussions between Superintendent Alexandro Flores and the board about what it would take to reopen those schools. He’s slated to present a more detailed plan the week of Feb. 11.
Minutes into Thursday’s presentation on the district’s declining enrollment and facility-repair needs at current schools, Board President Connie Prado interrupted.
“How do the rooftops at Palo Alto and Kindred (elementaries) — what do they have to do with the reopening of Athens, Kazen and West Campus?” Prado asked.
“It all ties back into the financial sustainability,” the superintendent replied, asking her to give the presentation a chance.
Flores eventually recommended that the board take the time to conduct a facilities assessment and feasibility study, and get more community input — a process he said usually takes 18 to 24 months.
Newly elected trustees Homer Flores, Shirley Ibarra Peña and Gilbert Rodriguez joined Prado in voting against his recommendation. They instead voted to direct the superintendent to come up with a plan to reopen the schools in time for the 2019-2020 school year.
The superintendent has been asked to present the plan during a board meeting the week of Feb. 11.
The vote drew loud applause Thursday from community members who regularly attend board meetings, but other community members are concerned the actions could lead to intervention from the Texas Education Agency.
“When (the superintendent) says ‘Give me more time,’ that’s not a ‘no’,” said former board trustee Edward Mungia, a staffer for San Antonio City Councilman Rey Saldaña. “He’s saying, ‘This is the timeline in which I can accomplish your vision,’ and they’re saying, ‘That’s unacceptable, it needs to be now.’ ”
Mungia said the recent board decisions mirror actions South San took before the state intervened in 2016 and appointed a conservator to oversee the board.
“There was a board that was micromanaging staff; going against superintendent recommendations; mismanagement of funds,” Mungia said. “That same story’s playing out yet again.”
Prado, who was also board president when the state appointed the conservator in 2016, said the board is being careful to stay within legal parameters.
“There was nothing that the board has done or acted on that was not run by our legal counsel first,” Prado said. “There’s nothing that says the board has to accept (the superintendent’s) recommendation.”
Current trustee Louis Ybarra Jr. is also concerned the actions could lead to state intervention. He voted to accept the superintendent’s recommendation for more time.
“I’m not opposed to opening any campus. I’ve always wanted to repurpose the campuses that we closed,” said Ybarra, who voted to close Athens and Kazen in 2017. “But it has to be done within the process that we use to do things.”
Ybarra said the Lone Star Governance process approved by TEA dictates that the board should hear from the superintendent before making decisions.
He also worried that reopening the schools with existing funds will use the district’s savings and put it at financial risk.
“We’ve built it up to a little over a three month reserve out of really hard work and diligence on administration’s part, and to go under a three month reserve is one: not responsible, but it also is a standard in the state to have at least three months,” said Ybarra. “Some districts have up to six.”
Prado dismissed Ybarra’s concerns about money and said the best way to increase revenue is to reopen the schools. She believes reopening the schools will bring back students who transferred to the IDEA charter school nearby when it opened in the fall of 2017.