For more than one year now, the most important unfilled job in San Antonio has been the vacant superintendent’s position at the San Antonio Independent School District, which serves more than 54,000 inner city students.
On the surface, the school board appears divided and back to square one in its long search.
Behind the scenes, there is a good chance that Daniel P. King, the nationally-recognized superintendent of the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District, who didn’t even apply, might be convinced to take the job now or after the May 11 school board elections.
Four of the seven trustee positions will be on the ballot. The District One seat will be vacant after one-term trustee Rúben Cuero steps down. The only candidate for the open seat is Cox/Smith attorney Stephen K. Lecholop, a Churchill High graduate who now lives in Southtown. Lecholop is a former Teach for America volunteer, a member of the district’s bond oversight committee, and a strong advocate for public education reform.
At first glance, there seems to be plenty of reason for pessimism. A divided school board decided Feb. 11 to extend its search after the finalists failed to win majority support. Two of the board members, former president James Howard and Olga Hernandez, unsuccessfully sought to steer the job to Interim Superintendent Sylvester Perez, who publicly has stated he would not seek the position, but privately has supported lobbying efforts to win him the job for at least one multi-year contract.
Board President Ed Garza confirmed Wednesday that Perez sent him an angry letter of resignation the morning after the failed attempt to put his name in consideration in a special meeting of the board in executive session.
Garza said Perez intended to resign at the end of the summer, but has since rescinded the resignation and asked to meet with the board.
“He’s a nice guy and has been a great interim superintendent, but he’s not even a candidate, and he’s not the guy to lead the district to become a national model of excellence,” Garza said. “It was a weird 48 hours. There has been a significant amount of lobbying on his behalf. ”
Perez disagreed with Garza’s characterization of his letter.
“Regarding the letter: no angry letter was sent,” Perez said. “An email was sent indicating a timeline for my availability to serve as Interim Superintendent. As a follow-up, and after understanding the potential difficulty within the timeline, another email was sent suggesting that IF a finalist was not named by this summer, I would be open to further discussions with the team of eight regarding next steps.”
The board was unable to reach agreement on the finalists presented by PROACT Search, the highly regarded agency based outside Chicago. The finalists included A. Marcus Nelson, the African-American superintendent of the Laredo Independent School District, and a Brazilian native who now works in a Virginia school district.
Among the candidates interviewed who didn’t make it as finalists were Steve Flores, the superintendent of the Harlingen Consolidated Independent School District, and a senior educator with the Los Angeles Unified School District, the only woman candidate to emerge from the search.
Some of the most qualified candidates chose not to apply for the job, apparently unwilling to risk their careers at the hands of a school board that, over the years, has been criticized for poor governance, political in-fighting and failing to support past superintendents brought in as change agents. One trustee, Olga Hernandez, will not consider any candidate who does not speak Spanish, which ruled out the Brazilian native and the Los Angeles educator.
In fairness, the board’s performance has improved considerably under Garza, who served as San Antonio’s mayor from 2001-05 and has brought a greater sense of governance and decorum to board meetings and trustee relationships. A consultant has spent considerable time with board trustees working on issues such as trustee communications and improving the meeting culture.
The last superintendent, Roberto Durón, agreed to step down in early 2012. Although he negotiated a one year transition contract that paid his full salary while he was to occupy a lesser position, Durón left shortly afterwards to become the Commissioner for Finance and Administration with the Texas Education Agency in Austin.
Durón was originally selected for the SAISD superintendent’s job in 2006 over two other finalists: Perez, now the interim superintendent and then the Midland school superintendent, and King, the award-winning superintendent of Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD in the Rio Grande Valley. King has attracted national attention for his leadership in improving the academic performance of the district’s students.
Garza has worked to overcome King’s reservations about the SAISD board, and has asked civic and business leaders here to call King and express their support. Mayor Julián Castro, state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, and H-E-B Chairman and CEO Charles Butt all are said to have called King to urge him to seek the job.
King is wary of the divided board, but Garza can probably deliver a five vote majority vote now or after the May 11 elections. If King does agree, it will be ironic that board divisions that led to the rejection of finalists eventually might lead to the district recruiting a proven superintendent who until now seemed beyond the district’s reach.
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