Updated 3/20, 3:30 p.m.The board of trustees for the San Antonio Independent School District unanimously approved a 10-year contract with New York-based charter school operator Democracy Prep Monday evening.
The contract calls for Democracy Prep to begin by taking over Stewart Elementary next school year, but it also authorizes the charter operator to run at least two “charter school continuums” in SAISD.
The continuums will stretch from kindergarten through 12th grade and serve up to 2,400 students. It also gives Democracy Prep the option to pursue opening additional schools.
Stewart has failed state academic accountability standards for five years and would have faced stiff state penalties next year — either campus closure or district takeover. But a law passed last legislative session gives a district a two year reprieve from those penalties if it hands the school’s operations over to an outside organization such as a charter operator.
The contract can be terminated if both parties agree, or if Democracy Prep doesn’t meet performance metrics. One of those metrics is a requirement to meet state standards by 2020.
Ahead of the vote, state senator José Menéndez joined more than a dozen teachers and community members who spoke to the board to ask them to shorten the contract or delay making a decision.
“Community members have contacted me with their concerns, and I know you’ve been contacted too,” said Menéndez, D-San Antonio. “Why not change the contract to two years with an option to renew instead of 10 years?”
Alejandra Lopez, a second grade teacher at Stewart, said the board had not given the school the support it needed the past five years while it struggled to improve.
“Who of you have visited our school? Walked our halls? Spoken to our students?” Lopez said. “Imagine if I treated my second grade class the way our district is treating the Stewart community at the moment.”
During the charter presentation and board discussion that followed, Superintendent Pedro Martinez and board trustees responded to the calls by saying the contract was the best of the limited options available.
“We know that there are issues that we probably all of us in this room have with partnering with charter schools, but we have been given certain choices, and we feel that we have landed on the best thing for our students,” said board president Patti Radle.
Martinez said the district didn’t have time to let parents and teachers be part of the decision making process because it needed to act quickly in order to prevent the state from stepping in.
“I wish there (were) ways for us to deal with our differences, but — ladies and gentlemen — I’m not going to apologize for wanting to keep the school open, picking a provider that has the same values we do, (and) ensuring that these families have a place to go,” Martinez said.
Although the school accountability law mandating state intervention was passed in 2015, Martinez said it wasn’t on the district’s radar until it got a letter from the Texas education commissioner last year.
“None of these choices are great choices,” Martinez said. “The commissioner was going to scrutinize any kind of partnership we had. If he didn’t see it was a partner with a proven track record he just wasn’t going to approve it.”
San Antonio Alliance, the union representing the district’s teachers and support staff, has criticized the administration for not notifying Stewart parents and teachers that it was in discussion with Democracy Prep until January, when it began talking with the charter operator in the fall.
“What we think would have been better would be to involve the Stewart community — the parents, the community, the teachers, the school employees — in figuring out what made sense for that campus,” said union president Shelley Potter. “Perhaps they would have come up with the same decision, and perhaps not. But that should be a decision for that community.”
Union members spent spring break canvassing the neighborhood around Stewart. They said many parents were unaware a charter operator could take over their school until the union knocked on their door.
Although the district sought out Democracy Prep in order to avoid closing Stewart., Tthe contract allows the charter operator to expand beyond Stewart’s current enrollment of around 500 students.
Martinez said the 10 year contract with a projected enrollment of up to 2,400 students was a necessary incentive to attract Democracy Prep.
“There’s no requirement on us unless they perform,” Martinez said, pointing to a provision in the contract requiring the charter to turn Stewart around in two years. “It’s a big investment for them. They are not going to come to a new city unless they feel there is an ability for them to grow.”
Camille Phillips can be reached at Camille@tpr.org or on Twitter @cmpcamille