Last Monday, trustees for the San Antonio Independent School District approved contracts allowing outside organizations to oversee 18 schools. During the pivotal board meeting, district leaders emphasized that most parents and staff supported the decision, but parents didn’t vote on the contracts themselves.
Parents were actually asked whether or not they supported the idea of becoming an in-district charter school. As in-district charter schools, campuses have greater flexibility. They also usually adopt a school model, like project-based learning or a focus on technology.
However, Superintendent Pedro Martinez said parents and teachers were also told about plans to partner with nonprofit organizations.
“The conversations were happening simultaneously. Now, by law, it is true what they vote for is on the in-district charter,” Martinez said. “That is what’s required by law.”
But the word “partner” usually implies equal power, and that’s not an accurate description of the situation. The contracts give the nonprofits control of the school’s budget and the authority to decide who works at the school for eight to 10 years.
The Texas Education Agency also calls the arrangement a partnership, and as Martinez pointed out during the board meeting, all school staff will remain district employees.
SAISD trustees will also able to revoke the contracts early if the nonprofits don’t meet academic performance criteria or if they mismanage finances.
“Nothing is changing for the children except for the fact that they can count on a model that can sustain itself, because we don’t know when the next recession is going to hit,” Martinez said. “We don’t know when there’s going to be a cut in funding, and sustaining these models is key.”
And that is the crux of the matter: funding. Under a 2017 state law known as SB 1882, district schools are eligible for hundreds of dollars more per student when they’re managed by an outside entity.
But to the teachers union, it’s an unacceptable shift in power. Shelley Potter is president of the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel.
“Do taxpayers understand that each management entity will have a separate, unelected governing board overseeing their schools, and that as taxpayers, if they want to see how they’re money is being spent, they would have to go to all those different governing boards’ meetings?” Potter asked the board during the public comment period.
As Potter pointed out, parents at six of the 18 schools weren’t asked what they thought of the plan to become an SB 1882 campus. The law didn’t require it because the schools are new or already have in-district charters.
“I feel certain that parents at Lamar, Gates, YWLA and ALA do not know that these agreements say that the managing entity quote ‘shall select and manage the principals of the schools,’” Potter said. “I’m relatively sure that they will not be okay with that.”
Out of the three parents that spoke to the board, one agreed with Potter.
Yon Hui Bell, who has a child at Advanced Learning Academy and was not surveyed by the school, asked the board how the contracts would improve education.
“Subcontracting out our schools only increases the number of administrators and bureaucrats and takes away control from teachers, students and families,” Bell said.
Rob Sipes, meanwhile, supported the push to become SB 1882 schools. As the parent of a student enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program at Jefferson High School, he was asked for his opinion earlier in the year.
“The choice schools work, and these partnerships will help ensure that funding remains available for them to keep working,” said Sipes, who also has a daughter at the Young Women’s Leadership Academy.
Multiple times during the meeting, the superintendent and trustees said handouts and social media posts were circulating false information about the contracts. To correct the record, Martinez addressed the public at the beginning of the meeting.
“I want to make it clear that this process has really been driven by our schools, driven by our principals. None of the partners are charter management organizations. We have no plans to lease out our buildings,” Martinez said. “There are no plans to give up control for our enrollment, and we’re not compromising on our values in any one of these partnerships.”
“All of these schools are SAISD schools. These are all under the authority of this board,” added board President Patti Radle.
District and campus leaders said that the line in the contract giving the nonprofit the authority to “select and manage the principal” isn’t a concern because the idea to become SB 1882 schools came from the principals, and the principals chose the nonprofit they wanted to oversee them.
Brian Sparks, the principal of Lamar Elementary and Bowden Academy, told trustees he didn’t mind the outside oversight. He said he sees the nonprofit as a “thought partner” that will help his schools fulfill the vision outlined in their charters.
“I don’t see it drastically changing how I believe my role should be executed, or how I’ll act in my role. And ultimately, I should be accountable too,” Sparks said. “We should be accountable to getting results for kids.”
Potter, the president of the San Antonio Alliance, criticized the district for making the contracts public on a Friday evening three days before the board vote.
The night of the vote, trustee Christina Martinez said she spent the weekend fielding calls and emails from concerned community members.
“It was hard coming in today not feeling like I had all the information that I needed. I don’t want that to happen again,” Martinez said. “I don’t know how we do that or how we can get better about that, but I need more time to be a well-informed board member and be prepared.”
Martinez later clarified that she had seen drafts of the contract for the school she represents before it was made public, but she felt that community members should have had more time to read the contracts before trustees voted on them.
Still, after hearing from the principals applying to become SB 1882 schools, Martinez and the other trustees unanimously approved the contracts and charter applications.
In order to approve all 18 schools, the trustees decided to set aside local district policy. Jefferson High School and Burbank High School only managed to get support from a little over half of their parents. That’s enough for state law — but local policy calls for two out of three teachers and parents to approve in-district charters.
Schools Under Contract and the Nonprofits Managing Them
- School Innovation Collaborative: A Texas nonprofit established the week before the board voted on the contracts. District officials said it will be led by executive director hired by Rice University.
- Lamar Elementary, Gates Elementary, Bowden Academy
- Young Women’s Preparatory Network: A Texas nonprofit established in 2002 to support the creation of single-gender schools.
- Young Women’s Leadership Academy, YWLA Primary
- CAST Network: A nonprofit spearheaded by San Antonio industry leaders established in 2018.
- CAST Tech, CAST Med, Advanced Learning Academy
- High Scope: A Michigan nonprofit known for its preschool curriculum.
- Carroll Early Childhood Center, Tynan Early Childhood Center
- Texas Council for International Studies: A new nonprofit run by Texas IB Schools, which supports International Baccalaureate programs.
- Briscoe Elementary, Harris MS, Burbank HS
- Huppertz Elementary, Woodlawn Hills Elementary
- Fenwick Academy, Woodlawn Academy, Jefferson High School