Inner city students throughout the country are often overlooked by school boards and by voters at the ballots. The San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD), which serves 53,811 students, is no exception – 93.4% of the SAISD student population is considered economically disadvantaged, and therefore, less likely to receive the resources needed to succeed. Many of these students attend some of the lowest performing schools in the city, including several of the 11 schools located in District 6.
District 6 includes transforming inner-city neighborhoods like Alta Vista and Beacon Hill, which will continue to change and be revitalized as more people move to San Antonio.
On May 9, voters will decide whether longtime incumbent District 6 trustee Olga Hernandez will remain on the SAISD board, or if one of three candidates challenging her should take over. Those candidates include Scott Meltzer, deputy director of the 80/20 Foundation; Jody Bayless, a retired SAISD physical education teacher; and David Soto, a retired San Antonio firefighter. Whatever the results, the elected official will certainly impact the success for students and the community over the next four years.
School board elections attract even less interest than mayoral or City Council races. Voter turnout is dismal. Early voting is underway and ends on May 5. Election Day is May 9.
All four candidates have expressed a passion for SAISD students and improving the District 6 community, yet each candidate demonstrates a different understanding of how the district fits within the city.
While the SAISD dropout rates have decreased dramatically within the last decade, students in the district still face a great number of challenges.
OLGA HERNANDEZ (Incumbent)
Board Vice President Olga Hernandez, 63, has served since 2006. A retired SAISD employee who has lived in the district all her life, Hernandez is seeking re-election to another four-year term.
Hernandez declined to discuss her platform or the challenges facing District 6 this week, but reiterated her passion for improving the community.
“I’ve been on the board for nine years and my approach has always been the same,” Hernandez said. “I’ve always said everything I do should be done for the kids, and that’s the same reason that I’m running again.”
Hernandez’s time on the board has been spent creating more charter and early college high schools within the district to prepare students for college. Although Hernandez has easily defeated her opponents in previous years, an increasing number of her constituents are demanding that the district trustee start making real changes in schools.
Scott Meltzer, 27, is the deputy director of Rackspace Chairman and Co-Founder Graham Weston’s philanthropic 80/20 Foundation, and the youngest candidate in the District 6 race. Meltzer, who has an undergraduate degree in sociology from Centre College and is pursuing a master’s in education leadership at St. Mary’s University, describes himself as a first-generation college graduate who has seen how quality higher education can transform the lives of students, their families and their community.
“In San Antonio Independent School District, seven out of 10 students are at-risk of dropping out of high school,” Meltzer noted. “Despite those numbers, they have extremely high potential, but we have to provide them with the right comprehensive resources to meet their physical, emotional, mental, and academic needs.”
According to Meltzer, the state of student services in SAISD requires immediate action, including an increased number of guidance counselors to better understand the needs of students and parents.
As the former chief of staff of City Year, a community service volunteer corps, and a former staffer for Communities in Schools, a highly respected national program that works to reduce the dropout rate, Meltzer is poised to create working partnerships between the district and national school resources.
“As a trustee, it is my duty to always actively listen,” Meltzer said. “I tell everyone I meet, whether I knock on their door or I’m attending a neighborhood PTA meeting ‘ You will not have to come find me, I will come to you.’”
If elected, Meltzer said he would visit three of the 11 schools each week to better understand the concerns of parents, students and administration. The monthly Board of Trustee meetings would allow him to vocalize the challenges facing the District 6 community, and help the board better understand how the goals and needs of District 6 overlap with other districts in the city.
“I want to know what my fellow trustees are hearing from their constituents,” Meltzer said. “I want to always make sure that we have a common goal, and that is to relentlessly serve the best interests of 53,000 students and make sure that they are graduating school on time and ready for success in our high skill workforce.”
Jody Bayless, a 55-year-old retired physical education teacher who taught at SAISD for more than a decade, is running for the board as a way to help at-risk kids in the district.
“As a teacher and a parent who has been living in this area in for 29 years, I have a passion for these kids, especially at-risk kids,” Bayless said. “I have three kids in the SAISD school system, and since I’ve been a teacher I’ve seen the value of schools drop. I want to see the value of education in inner city schools again.”
Bayless believes the biggest obstacle for SAISD students is the lack of rules and regulations on campus, which leads to school violence, poor attendance rates and reduced community involvement.
“I’ve seen kids just hanging around the school after classes end,” Bayless said.
As a trustee, Bayless plans to create a stricter code of conduct for students and encourage community involvement through programs like “Fathers in Action,” an initiative that encourages the fathers of local students to become more involved on campus, and to work directly with administration to create real changes in schools. The group could potentially help assist teachers on field trips and in the classrooms.
Bayless also hopes to partner with local universities and colleges, using an education model similar to those found in magnet schools to help prepare students for work and higher education after graduation.
“These kids have intelligence,” Bayless said. “How smart they are is not directly tied to low economics, but if school becomes a safe place, I think you’ll see attendance rise dramatically.”
Bayless hopes to work with the other district board members to amend the student code of conduct and further improve the safety of the facilities for District 6 students.
David Soto, 68, is a retired San Antonio firefighter. He originally ran without success against Hernandez in 2011 because he was tired of the political divisions among trustees.
“My concern was there was a taint of corruption on the school board,” Soto said. “It’s not about businesses and contracts. My concern is for the kids, and that they have what they need.”
If elected, Soto hopes to impose term limits for trustees, as toughen oversight over the next district superintendent.
“By the time I get on board they will have elected a superintendent,” Soto said. “My concern would be to hold his feet to the fire and make sure he’s come to fulfill the contract he signs and get the facilities in order, and to make a two-term limit for all trustee members. Any longer than that, and you’re just staying to serve yourself.”
Soto is a graduate of Fox Tech High School who then joined the San Antonio Fire Department and San Antonio Police Department. He attributes his own children’s’ success to strong authority figures and the resources found inside the SAISD schools they attended.
“I know there are classrooms that lack chairs and desks, there’s dishwashers and refrigerators or exercise equipment that is broken down,” Soto said. “Without that, the kids are disappointed, they don’t have motivation.”
Soto’s slogan, “Children RRR #1”, emphasizes the importance of reading, writing and arithmetic to the students’ well being. If elected, Soto said, he would work to create new early college high schools and training for trade occupations.
“There’s not a lot of pride in the school system anymore,” Soto said. “As a trustee, you’re supposed to have the trust of the people, and it’s not there right now.”
*Featured/top image: SAISD District 6 candidate signs outside Thomas Edison High School during early voting in San Antonio. Photo by Lea Thompson