A Closer Look at Consolidating Bexar County’s Weakest School Districts

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Jacinia Luevanos works with students in 3rd-grade bilingual reading.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Harlandale ISD has been under a Texas Education Agency special accreditation investigation for more than a year.

More than 50 readers posted comments last week after reading “Failure to Consolidate Hurts San Antonio’s Public Education Outcomes,” a reflection, on the one hand, of strong reader interest in education issues and, on the other hand, the difference of opinion out there about how to deal with Bexar County’s lowest-performing schools districts.

The good news: People do care about our public schools, and with the 2019 Texas Legislature budgeting with greater resources than have been available in some years, the prospects for improved funding are real. Raise Your Hand Texas, the Austin-based public education advocacy nonprofit, has published a five-point guide to addressing public school financing in this legislative session.

Making sure the funds meant for public education go to public education is vital, but as the Raise Your Hand Texas video demonstrates, legislators have been diverting billions of dollars in education funds for years.

To clarify what I wrote last week, I do not favor a single, countywide school district serving 323,000-plus students. Moving from 15 school districts to one in Bexar County would be like sending astronauts to Mars when we had yet to reach the moon. We’d never get there. Such consolidation has been studied before, and the economic costs are questionable.

More than economics, however, are at play. Breaking the cycle of multigenerational poverty by offering inner-city, mostly minority students a fair shot at a good education is the real issue. That’s why legislators, state education officials, and district leaders should eliminate the worst-performing districts and place the schools and students in higher-performing, neighboring districts.

The individual school districts in Bexar County

Courtesy / Bexar County

The boundaries of the 15 school districts in Bexar County

The four school districts that should be considered for consolidation are Harlandale ISD (14,363 students), Edgewood ISD (10,412), South San ISD (9,102), and Southside ISD (5,651). That’s about 12.5 percent of the county’s total district school students.

All four districts are fairly small, relative to the county’s larger districts, and all share low tax bases, the root of so much evil in the state’s system of public school funding. Multiple lawsuits filed over the past five decades, and subsequent half-measures by the Texas Legislature, have failed to rectify the problem of unequal funding and education opportunity.

Former state Rep. Mike Villarreal, now the director of the Institute for Urban Education at UTSA, said it best some years ago when he told me, “In Texas, we educate our children according to their ZIP code.”  It’s a shameful legacy and one that has helped shape San Antonio into one of the country’s most economically segregated cities.

The four districts also share a history of poor governance, politicized school boards, unacceptable education outcomes for their students, and state intervention by the Texas Education Agency. All except Southside are experiencing declining enrollments.

Those who favor the status quo cite each district’s unique culture formed over the past 75 years, the value of local control, and a fear of being swallowed into something bigger. But they fail to explain how leaving the districts alone will ever lead to improved education outcomes.

What would incremental consolidation look like? The San Antonio Independent School District, the inner city’s largest and most innovative district, with 50,641 students, could absorb Harlandale, South San, and Edgewood ISDs over time. That would make an expanded SAISD (84,518) larger than North East ISD (65,805), and still smaller than Northside ISD (106,086).

Southside ISD, like its higher-performing neighbor, East Central ISD, is still a mostly rural district. The two would fit together.

Of course, it is one thing to consolidate districts from a journalist’s desktop computer, and another thing to actually do it. Any consolidation would have to be preceded by very sensitive and thorough planning and community involvement. The end result might be different.

There are still too many school campuses open in the inner city, a predicament that drains tax dollars that could be spent more smartly. North East ISD, for example, houses 65,000 students at 75 campuses. SAISD’s 50,000 students are spread among 99 schools.

Consolidation is complex. The considerations are economic, cultural, and political. Overcoming community fears and concerns would be a very real part of any consolidation process. Making sure the state adequately funds the consolidation process and a necessary transition period would be essential.

These are all reasons to move forward with care. These are not reasons to do nothing. All of Bexar County’s students deserve the best possible shot at success. Continuing to turn a blind eye to failing district leadership should not be an option.

28 thoughts on “A Closer Look at Consolidating Bexar County’s Weakest School Districts

  1. A question at least in Harlandale. The investigation is about our school board behavior and nothing to do with what is really going on in the district. When you compare “state grades” earned this past year, Harlandale outranks their 6 neighboring districts including San Antonio. Of course that is just 1 of many amazing things happening with our children. Our community is proud of our students, despite what our board does the staff continues to be dedicated to giving our kids the very best. So many accomplishments!!

  2. Yes, consolidating the school districts and closing some of the schools is one of the answers to this difficult generations-long problem.
    Teaching children is complex, as they come to school with all of their “baggage” not just their backpacks. It is as important that they have social-emotional understanding and competency to leave some of that “baggage” at home and arrive fully at school bringing focus, self-awareness and confidence to the learning process. This approach is being taught at low performing schools all over the country. It is Centered Learning, or also called Mindfulness. There are many different groups bringing this skill set to the classroom. It is inexpensive and not time-consuming. It does require some education of the teachers, administration, and staff. It can turn a school around on many different levels. The research shows a decrease in bullying, increase in attendance, an increase in test scores, a decrease in stress for everyone. The students go home and teach it to their families increasing their social-emotional competency, thus, in theory, reducing some of the “baggage” or distraction of the student. This approach has no downside and we will happily discuss with anyone who will listen.

  3. RR- The most salient factor that obscure issues relating to education and change are the infusion of voices of non-educators, like yourself, politicians, and economic partners. Broader concerns, in this case, it is clearly planning for gentrification and providing a trained workforce on the taxpayer’s dollar, that drives the trajectory of the kind of thinking displayed here.. and last week. My suspicion is that this issue is being media tested through the RR.

    If educators, parents, and actual neighbors in the community drive this train, and the focus is solely on education (rather journalists, the Chamber of Commerce, developers etc), then we may approach issues of change in education that are viable in relation to learning. If so, the train track would run a different course and arrive a vastly different kind of place, a terrain where the focus is on learning and all other social concerns fall from this focus rather than directing it. Wow. what destination for our children. But those on the periphery of education would have to get off the track, and quite hijacking the train, in order get there.
    Would that be possible?

    • Parents, educators, and actual neighbors in the community have had an opportunity to drive the train for decades and it appears the train is stuck in the train station under that scenario.

      • Not true. It has always been overarching political and economic considerations (as well as personal agendas of power brokers) that have sculpted what we know as education. This is so ingrained in the structure of the system that the average citizen (experienced educators and aware parents excluded) do not see this influence of power on the existence and changes made in the present educational system. But those in power are quite well aware of it.. and use it to their advantage.

        I am afraid you have dupped. But you are not alone.

  4. You are such an obvious tool for SAISD superintendent Pedro Martinez. You ding the four districts you want to consolidate for “failing district leadership” and for declining enrollment. Under Pedro Martinez, SAISD’s student enrollment has dropped over 5,000 students in three years, from 53,700 to 48,550. SAISD parents are not buying what he and his school board (that have completely abdicated their responsibilities) are selling. As Marcie G. notes in her comment, Harlandale outperforms SAISD. South San had no IR campuses for years. Meanwhile, SAISD has roughly the same number of IR campuses as when Pedro Martinez came three years ago. The district started the school year with more teacher vacancies than anyone who has been in the district for years can remember. Area teachers do not want to work under Pedro Martinez’ reign. Additionally, he has a “talent management” department that is completely inept, which exacerbates the teacher recruitment problems.

    Finally, you show your ignorance regarding the educating of inner city children when you talk about the number of campuses. What you are advocating for is larger campuses when the research indicates that smaller campuses are especially beneficial for low-income, inner city students. Smaller campuses allow for student to be known and tend to have more of a focus on social-emotional learning than very large schools.

    • Jay, I don’t necessarily agree with your comments, but I am surprised your comment posted with you calling Bob a “tool” and “ignorant”. I added a comment to a previous article calling a commenter arrogant, condescending, and with obvious insecurities and the RR would not publish it. Glad you did not get censored.

  5. One more thing . . . you evidently just want to consolidate the low-wealth, high-poverty districts into one larger low-wealth, high-poverty district? Really? No consolidation with North East or Northside or Alamo Heights? Hmmm

  6. Twenty years ago it seemed like something might need to be done. Now it is quite clear. The problem is that people are not willing to try something new. It is scarry, it is not known, it is unfamiliar, but change must happen.
    Consolidation must happen. I have been saying since I was in high school in the 80s that there were too many districts with boards, politicians, and principals all of who get paid a bunch of money that could be going to more teachers for smaller class rooms.
    If the 4 districts mentioned plus SAISD and maybe another one or two were combined, 10 to 20 campuses could be closed needing 15 less principals, paying 15 less kitchen staff. Consolidation and slightly larger campuses makes sense for the taxpayers AND more importantly for the students.

  7. As per the Public Engagement COSA Resolution of Councilwoman Sandoval, I suggest that the students and parents of these districts you propose consolidating are the primary influencers for this conversation. Their participation is the first and most important step. So many strategies leave out the very people affected, listening sessions are a waste of time and obtuse, leaving only the professionals to make the decision they came to spin!

  8. As a graduate of the Edgewood ISD (Kennedy H.S. Class of 1978), I know first hand of the less-than-stellar education I was provided. All districts should receive equal funding regardless of economics. The notion that rich people get better education and life opportunities simply because they are rich is nonsense in a nation that espouses equal opportunities. Besides if Texas really wanted to change it system of funding education it would have done so already. Who will clean all those hotel rooms in San Antonio and work all those kitchens if not for the poorly educated? The system is rigged and the sooner we acknowledge it, the quicker the solution.

  9. There is logical reason to have 15 independent school districts in the San Antonio metropolitan area. Racist policy is seldom if ever logical and that is the basis for separate and unequal education in San Antonio.
    For consolidation to be successful one or more of the more “successful” districts would have to be included.
    Defacto school segregation must end now!

    • The districts are not racist. They are not separated by race, but by class. Any person of any color can buy a house in any district. Economics are the issue that divides the different parts of town, not race. There is no law that people of a certain color can’t live in a certain area. To say that classism is racist is to say that minorities are unable to be successful. That is racist.

  10. Bob, please do an article with the affected superintendents and board members. It would be interested to hear their thoughts on the idea.

  11. Bob, you seem to have a real problem describing what it is that you are proposing; and even more difficulty explaining why.

    Last week you appeared to advocate for a single county-wide school district then tried to walk it back. This week you have proposed consolidating six existing school districts into two districts; yet you have chosen to describe your proposal as “four districts that should be considered for consolidation”.

    If six-into-two is your idea why can’t you just say that straight up; and why didn’t you say it last week?

    More importantly, why are you so shy about explaining how your six-into-two consolidation proposal is going to help the 100,000+ students that it would impact?

    Perhaps you can shed some light on this in a future column?

    Aside from saving a few pennies on purchasing toilet paper, I’d like to understand why bigger is better for students and how creating a bigger school district is going to result in a better education for those students? You mention cost savings by putting more students into fewer schools. But wouldn’t that also result in increased travel times to school and fewer students walking? What are the trade offs of larger schools? Is there an ideal size for a school?

    While you are at it maybe you can explain why you consider East Central, with a TEA rating of 70, “higher performing” than Southside with a TEA rating of 73; and why combining these two districts to create a district with less than 16,000 students spread over hundreds of square miles is going to improve educational outcomes for those students? Likewise, why do you consider SAISD, with a TEA rating of 74, “higher performing” than Harlandale, with a TEA rating of 76?

    I’m also curious about how you propose selling your idea of folding Edgewood, with a TEA rating of 63, and South San, with a TEA rating of 64, into SAISD, which has a TEA rating of 74 and plenty of its own challenges already? Do you propose accomplishing the consolidation using existing state laws in the Texas Education Code or will it require new statutes to force the consolidation? If it’s voluntary what’s the pitch to entice SAISD parents, trustees and administrators to take in poor performers like Edgewood and South San?

    I’m also curious about the costs of consolidation that you mention in this column. What are those costs and how do you plan to get the state to pay for them? It would also be great to know how combining school districts with long histories of cronyism and corruption into one larger district is going to reduce cronyism and corruption? Could it, instead, worsen those problems?

    Inquiring minds want to know.

    Aside from the lack of intellectual rigor, something else that I have found disturbing in your two columns on school district consolidation is the use of false equivalencies and false dichotomies to try to make specious points.

    Last week you added up the salaries of 15 Bexar County superintendents and compared their total salaries to the salary of the Houston ISD superintendent even though Bexar County’s three largest districts combined have more students than HISD. Why did you include the salaries of 12 additional superintendents when you made this comparison? Why did you not mention that Harris County has more school districts than Bexar County.

    This week you employed one of President Trump’s favorite issue-framing techniques when you stated that those in favor of the status quo “fail to explain how leaving the districts alone will ever lead to improved education outcomes” when, of course, you have not explained how consolidating six districts into two districts will ever lead to improved education outcomes.

    The headline on your column last week – “Failure to Consolidate Hurts San Antonio’s Public Education Outcomes” – is a good example of this mindset; a hammer searching for a nail.

    My suggestion for a headline on the column that I’m suggesting that you still need to write is; “The Case for Consolidation”.

    Can you make that case?

    Two columns in and your readers are still wondering.

  12. I am an educator in Harlandale ISD. I also taught in Northside ISD. Let me tell you about my observations. First and foremost, the students I teach are every bit as bright and innovative as the students on the north side of San Antonio. They do, however, all suffer from an inferiority complex that they are “less than” the kids on the opposite side of downtown. Even though I don’t think Mr. Rivard intended to, this article is an example of the institutional prejudice against students who live on the south and west sides of San Antonio. Why not consolidate all the school districts in Bexar County? I have yet to hear one good reason from Northside, Northeast, or most especially Alamo Heights. I have a strong suspicion that it has to do with not wanting “those” kids in their schools. As a teacher, I can’t tell you how many times I have seen the incredulity on faces when I tell them I teach in Harlandale. When I taught in Northside, the comments ran along these lines: “Fantastic!” “That’s great!” “Lucky you!” Now the comments from northsiders are: “Really? Wow.” “You teach those kids?” “You must have your hands full.” These are the comments that the students and their families have assimilated their whole lives. I do agree that the districts should consolidate. Too much money is spent on administrators in all of the districts. I just think singling out “low performers” (who all happen to be on the south and west side) helps perpetuate the huge cultural and economic divide in our city.

    • THIS! ^^ My wife teaches in Harlandale, and she has even been asked, at a northside church we visited, if she felt that teaching there was her “mission” (without Blues Brothers irony).

      I agree – consolidation of ONLY the poor districts would only serve to exacerbate the stereotypes.

  13. K-12 educational campuses inside Loop 410 should be consolidated- regardless of ___ISD ; Will it improve status quo?- You will find out in 20-30 years and I and most of these posters will be departed. Yes, I have a valid Standard Teacher Certificate and decided against continuing to Teach.

    • Bexar, that’s an intriguing idea. It may play to the idea of consolidating based on low SES. Consolidation of the smaller districts makes with exception of SAISD. In this case, I think SAISD should be divided into partitions to be absorbed by a consolidated NEISD/Judson, a consolidated East Central/Southside ISD, and a consolidated Harlandale/South San/SWISD.

      I even think Northside ISD is too big. It should be partitioned to Alamo Heights ISD and Edgewood ISD (half serious).

  14. My kids go to a Title 1 school because my wife works there. From our experience the problem is not really the kids. The problem is parents and administrative practices. We have seen parents with new cars, new cell phones, manicured nails send lice ridden children to school. It is not the kid’s fault. It is the parents. Unfortunately, the only fines for bad parenting are paid by the public school system that is expected to raise the children.

    The administration is also to blame for not enforcing “no shots, no school” law and not enforcing basic discipline consequences. Northside ISD is full of kids that are not in compliance with “no shots, no school.” They don’t have to actually have the shots, just have the right documentation. However, principals are encouraged to be “creative” to skirt the law and keep kids in school. Again, not the kids fault.

    If you look at the Facebook pages of individual campuses you will see a lot of comments on aggressive students being kept in school. Why? Money. Lower average daily attendance equals lower revenue from the state. Some of these students have behavioral disorders that the parents and the district uses as an excuse to not curb abusive behavior. This is the parent’s and the district’s fault for creating an abusive environment at campuses.

    There is also the facilities side of the equation that there will be issues. Historically, public school districts run their equipment until it breaks and do not do an adequate job of being efficient. Look at the size of Northside ISD. It there was an external audit done of the facilities I am sure the public would find the “guts” of the buildings in a less than optimal condition. Facilities are like an M&M candy. They tend to have a beautiful and colorful coating, clean appearance, but once you crack the shell you have to worry if the brown stuff is crap or chocolate.

    All of these lead to the point of consolidating poor performing districts into larger ones will be messy. Not only from a student management and curriculum standpoint, but also from a parental support and district administration perspective. Please consider who you vote for in board elections. Only they can hold Superintendents accountable through evaluations for issues that are not criminal. Look at Board Policies on the website and check for yourself through public information requests if the district is in compliance.

    Compliance with Texas Education Code is either yes or no. There is no maybe.

  15. In the early 1990s I recall a proposal (don’t remember by whom) of forming four Bexar County school districts. It’s been a long time, so I don’t remember the exact configurations but it was something like SAISD – then the largest – uniting with Alamo Heights, North East with Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City and East Central, Northside and Edgewood and all of the South Side-area school districts together.

    Of course that went over like a led balloon with Alamo Heights! But whether then or now, how would any consolidation, except getting the school districts to agree, occur?

    I know that around 1950 SAISD consolidated with three smaller school districts and have been told – but don’t know if this is true – it had the opportunity to acquire what became Northside but didn’t believe it to be a good financial decision. If true, apparently those making that decision did not anticipate northern Bexar County growth and development.

    If Mr. Rivard has access to the Express-News and Light archives, it would be interesting for him to research previous consolidation efforts and share his findings with readers.

  16. The responses here concerning the issue at hand are clear indicators of how difficult it will be to consolidate the aforementioned south side school districts. Is it a good idea or a bad idea to consolidate the school districts, I don’t think we will never know. What we do know is that charter schools, not mentioned anywhere in this discussion, are here and they are not going away. Many school districts that are mentioned here are complaining that they are losing enrollment to charter schools. Parents are beginning to realize that they have a choice in the education of their children and are making choices for their children’s future. Competition is good for the south side school districts which must provide quality education or get eaten up by charter schools. Go Public wants to keep the public school tradition and doesn’t want to give up their piece of the pie. Well I think we all know that charter schools are taking big bites from the pie, if they can do a better job, for the sake of the children, let them. We can save a lot of time and headaches by letting the parents of these districts decide which schools are better for their children, then let the repercussions fall where they may.

  17. I am a teacher in one of the so-called low-performing districts. I am also a former journalist who covered education. Consolidation does nothing to help the biggest problem I have as a teacher in a poverty-stricken area: the home life of the student and how that filters into the school environment. I can guarantee you that if you take one of my typical students — a student who has been held back at least a year, has no father in the home, has parents who are are high school drop-outs, sees drug deals in their neighborhoods and hears gun shots at night — and put them in a district with higher STAAR scores and better state report cards, you will get the same result. No amount of computers (none of which I have in my classroom), or new textbooks (I have none) or better teachers (what is a good teacher?) will fix the inherent problem — kids today come to school with emotional/mental problems that interfere with learning. We need more counselors and mentors from the outside community. Yes, it would be nice to have computers (any business out there willing to donate?) But as a small school district, I enjoy small classes — my average class is 15 — which my students need. Larger school districts pack in 22-plus students. I don’t care how great a teacher one might be, managing more than 15 students in a class is tough. Much of the behavior teachers deal with — in all districts — ranges from profanity, backtalk, drugs, fights, and threats. However, schools continue to keep these kids in the classroom, jeopardizing the safety of other students and teachers. It’s harder and harder to remove disruptive kids from the classroom, despite what laws apparently say a teacher has the right to do. So, let’s battle the inherent problem first — the mental state of our children.

  18. Unless you’re a fan of corruption, ineptitude and cronyism, there is no reason for Harlandale, Edgewood or South San ISD to continue to exist. All three districts have been plagued with those problems for decades now.

    I graduated from Harlandale ISD schools, and have a lot of family that still live on the south side. I’ve gotten to witness the dysfunction firsthand for years now. For those arguing in favor of local control, take a look at the perennial antics of the dueling school board factions in South San, or the long-standing under the table financial practices of multiple boards in Harlandale, and tell me how well that “local control” is working out for the people living in those districts, and the kids that have to go to school there.

    The low performance of those districts is directly linked to the resulting economic and social stagnation in the areas they serve. Merging these districts would break the stranglehold that self-serving (and often corrupt) school board members have on these schools, would raise standards, increase professionalism, and give the neighborhoods they serve a fighting chance for once. If you can’t see that, you’re part of the problem.

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