Harlandale Community Divided Over State Investigation | Texas Public Radio

Harlandale Community Divided Over State Investigation

Aug 2, 2019

Members of the Harlandale community voiced their concerns about the results of a state investigation into the school district Thursday evening at a public hearing.

Most people who spoke thought the investigation into allegations of nepotism, financial mismanagement and improper governance was needed, but they had different opinions about what should happen next.

Some were upset that the state plans to replace the elected school board and lower Harlandale’s accreditation. Others, however, believe the state needs to take over, but were angry that trustees are fighting it.

“You know what’s right and wrong. You know what you’re supposed to be doing and not doing. Pay attention, and if you can’t pay attention or follow the rules drop out and let someone who gives a damn take your place,” said Rose Garcia, who has three grandchildren in Harlandale schools.

A final report  issued by the Texas Education Agency in June found extensive evidence of contract violations and board business conducted through text messages but insufficient evidence to support the allegations of nepotism.

Garcia told trustees she didn’t mind them fighting the state’s intervention “a little” but asked them not to “waste the district’s resources.”

“Lawyers are expensive,” Garcia said. “If you’re losing the battle, give it up. Do that much for our kids.”

Harlandale's elected school board listens to community member's concerns about the result of a state investigation into the district's governance and financial management Thursday.
Credit Camille Phillips | Texas Public Radio

Elected Board President Ricardo Moreno said after the public hearing that he felt it was worth the legal fees to “at least go through the appeal process,” which began in December and is likely to culminate with a final review by Texas Education Commissioner in Austin August 7.

“To say we couldn’t find a way to protect the interests of our voters and to be given the opportunity to assist our community and to say we’re just going to lay down and allow my community where I grew up, where I went to school, where I came back and decided to live, the opportunity to just go by the wayside, it’s not something that I’m willing to take,” Moreno said.

Moreno said that Harlandale’s record of student achievement should be taken into account by the state, a viewpoint expressed during the hearing by several speakers affiliated with the state and local teachers union.

Representatives of the state and local teacher unions, right, listen to Gina Castaneda at a public hearing on the state investigation into Harlandale Thursday. Castaneda filed some of the complaints that launched the investigation.
Credit Camille Phillips | Texas Public Radio

Susan Salinas, a regional organizer with the Texas State Teachers Association, said during the hearing that the election in May followed by the departures of Superintendent Rey Madrigal and trustee David Abundis showed that the district was moving in the right direction and the elected board did not need to be replaced.

“(The oversight of) a conservator is enough,” Salinas said. “Harlandale is a great district, and we can make the changes that we need to. It’s very interesting that TEA is only taking over economically challenged districts and minority districts. Wonder why.”

Grandmother Josie Scales and representatives of the teachers unions also said they were worried that a lowered accreditation status could hurt students’ chances of getting into college.

“I don’t want my grandkids to go through that,” Scales said, pointing out that no Harlandale schools are on the state’s list of failing schools and that the district expects to earn a B on the state’s academic accountability ratings later this  month.

“They don’t give a flip about our kids (at TEA),” Scales said.

Other speakers said trustees were relying too heavily on attorneys and going into closed session too often, leaving the community unaware of what was being decided.

“The privilege that we have as Americans to openly communicate with our elected officials (is) paid for, but it’s denied here. It’s not allowed here. It’s not wanted,” said Orlando Salazar, who said his family has a history of military service. 

State law allows school boards to go into closed session to discuss legal and personnel matters. But according to TEA spokesperson DeEtta Culbertson, Harlandale’s practice of voting to “take actions as discussed in closed session” without clarifying what those actions will be is not normal.

Camille Phillips can be reached at Camille@tpr.org or on Twitter @cmpcamille