Consolidate SA’s School Districts To Serve Students, Strengthen Workforce

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The SAISD school bus parking lot is part of the area that GrayStreet Partners is redeveloping across Broadway from the Pearl.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

There are 17 independent school districts in the San Antonio metro area, each with its own board of trustees, administrators, and program development staff.

San Antonio may rank second in the nation in millennial population growth, but it is also 90th in the nation in educated millennials, according to a recent report. To me, that is a telling reminder that our city lacks a functionally educated and trained workforce for its present-day needs.

In my experience as a business professional and CEO of a local nonprofit organization, I found it difficult to fill entry-level clerical positions with local high school graduates who were functionally literate and able to complete relatively simple tasks such as writing a memo.

This recalled the fact that there are 17 independent school districts in the San Antonio area, each with its own board of trustees, administrators, and program development staff – an incredible waste of the limited funds available to each district to educate our city’s youth.

With some media reports estimating the cost of separate boards and administrations around $35 million, it seems that large sum of money could more appropriately be devoted to educating our young people so they can one day make meaningful contributions to our city and its working climate.

Consolidating school districts was proposed some years ago but largely defeated by a combination of districts with large tax bases not wanting to share their funds or educational philosophies with lesser-funded districts, and the lesser-funded districts being afraid of losing autonomy to the larger, more sophisticated portions of the city – a triumph for shortsightedness and parochial narrowness on all sides.

The Texas Legislature’s “Robin Hood” plan – the funds that go back to the State when a district collects a surplus of taxes due to high property values – doesn’t help either, as the State is not required to reinvest that “recapture” in public education.

A well-planned consolidation of our 17 school districts would not mean taking away our neighborhood schools or support for their sports teams and bands. On the contrary, there might be more money available to support extracurricular activities that can enrich students’ experiences.

We are all in this together, whether we live in areas where the tax base is more developed, or in parts of the metropolitan area where the tax base is less plentiful. The young people in our public schools are the future of our city, so the question remains: Do we want to continue wasting the penurious amount of revenue available for education on multiple administrations, or will we, as a city, take the courageous step of consolidating and spending our assets on the youth who will become our workforce in future years?

In recent years, many programs that were once the pride of public education have been cut due to decreased state funding. In more affluent districts, parent and citizen groups have created organizations and foundations to supplement the bare-bones curricula of the schools in their parts of town. In less affluent areas, many parent and citizen groups simply do not have the means to do so.

What would it be like if San Antonio could use those millions spent on redundant administrations and boards for the education and training of its youth? What might be the effect on STAAR testing and our students’ general academic performance? What might those funds do to increase graduation rates and students moving into higher education and preparation for the more demanding tasks our growing economy requires? And what might this different use of education funding do to reduce poverty in our city and county?

Ollie Storm Elementary School is located Southwest of downtown and is part of the San Antonio Independent School District.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

The State of Texas’ pass-fail accountability system rests heavily on student performance on STAAR exams.

There have been several consolidations of boards and administrations in other metropolitan areas of the United States. One such model is in Portland, Oregon, where a central school board and central administration staff make decisions on curricula and allocation of capital assets such as school buildings and amenities, and principals selected by the central administration manage individual schools’ day-to-day operations.

Candidates for the school board could be elected either at large or by balloting in areas of the metroplex. It seems to work in Portland, a city similar to San Antonio in many ways.

San Antonio has seen its fair share of school board scandals involving misuse of education funds. A central administration of education systems in this area would be more open to scrutiny and audit than our present system of multiple boards doing business in multiple ways.

Our children and youth are our hope for the future; rather than fighting over funds and then wasting them on duplicitous administrative expense, we must devote available funding to their coming of age in a more enlightened and productive way.

That makes sense to this taxpayer, at least.

18 thoughts on “Consolidate SA’s School Districts To Serve Students, Strengthen Workforce

  1. Yes! that is the way to go to solve some of the financial issues. Of course that can also be said for the duplication of services between the City, County and all the little suburban cities. Indianapolis consolidated City and County about 40 years ago and it has worked well.

  2. Usually what really happens is you get a gigantic beuracratic administration even larger than the 17 districts currently have and a greater cost per student, what is needed is less demand for high stakes testing let the teachers really teach and get back to the fundamentals, identifying students at risk and giving them the support needed for them to achieve the kind of education you need them to have. Right now teachers spend too much time on things that are not teaching and less time on real teaching. Give them the proper support and you will get what you want.

    • The matter of beaurocracy is a real one. It usually happens through neglect of those in charge over the administration in question. I agree that teaching to standardized tests is a big problem. But those are State and Federal mandates that are legislative in nature. So let’s vote the b———s out!

  3. San Antonio ISD, Northside, and Northeast are all large enough to continue to exist separately, and I doubt if Northside and Northeast (or Judson or Alamo Heights) will ever agree to consolidate with others. But it would be a good idea to pursue consolidation of Harlandale, Burbank, South San, Southwest, etc. with the San Antonio ISD. Those are either too small with some having dysfunctional problems with their school administrations. The smaller outlying districts probably have hopes of growing the way that Judson has over the years to become a self-sustaining, successful district and, therefore, probably have no interest in consolidating.

  4. I have been volunteering in the education sector since 1984 when we started San Antonio Youth Literacy (SAYL). SAYL was formed to help address the high percentage of high school graduates that could not function with basic literacy skills. We also help bring Communities In Schools (CIS) to San Antonio to help support families whose children were struggling in school. In spite of doubling down on volunteer efforts to help in the last 35 + years, we still are not making significant progress. I attribute this to the 17 independent school districts. I hope the time has finally come that the San Antonio voters are more concerned about the kids and their future than the political future of some of the smaller districts trustees.

  5. I agree with Mr. Stromberg that consolidation of many of the local school districts would create savings and a synergy of education programs and curriculum for thousands of students across San Antonio. North East, North Side and Alamo Heights could certainly stand on their own and continue to find success, and the military based districts could either combine or remain independent based on the Department of Defense assessments of needs. Clearly though many the other ISD’s could definitely benefit from consolidation without giving up their unique identity.

  6. Interesting that the author pointed to Portland, Oregon as the model. Houston and Dallas also have very large school districts across the city and could be used as a model.

    I can see going from 17 down to 4 or 5. NISD is already large enough – it is the 4th largest in the state and constantly growing.

    Locally, it will be almost impossible to get the small districts to agree to a merger. The only way it would happen is if it were mandated at the state level by the Texas Education Agency.

    • Mandate may be the only way to get consolidation, but it still would need support from the public. That involves staffing a board with people who high community respect and presence; not a bunch of special interest beaurocrats.

  7. I’ve said this for years. The problem, of course, lies with the districts like Northside and North East – the people living in those districts won’t want to share the wealth with the less well-to-do districts. And that is a crying shame. We should want ALL of our children to have a good, solid public education, not just the ones whose parents can afford to live in certain areas of the city. A strong public education system benefits the entire city. (I don’t have kids and I happily pay my taxes…)

  8. SAISD merged with many other districts 50 – 60 years ago, but I doubt if there is the political will for districts to merge at this time, though I would gladly sacrifice Pedro Martinez and get an educator in charge of education.

    There is great disparity within school districts in facilities, etc. Merger would only exacerbate those disparities.

    Many of those in favor of consolidation to save on administrative costs, etc., also support creating additional bureaucracies in the form of charter schools with superintendents, administrators, etc., that duplicates the traditional public school system, but without elected school boards, with plenty of nepotism, with brother-in-law deals, and with very little accountability to the taxpayers.

    First step should be to require school board elections whenever taxpayer dollars are being spent.

  9. The problem is the better funded ISDs will not want to share their resources with other ISDs under a consolidation plan. Devise a financial plan that gives every ISDs the same amount of funding per student. Then funding cannot be blamed as the culprit for under performing ISDs.

  10. JC I have been advocating this since moving here in 1989. Coming from Miami there is just
    One school district – this allows for better bargaining power for purchasing everything from books to food and reduces redundant overhead costs. Plus – what is good for Alamo Heights is goo for everyone !

  11. Ironically, when SAISD was by far Bexar County’s largest school district it had the opportunity to merge with the-then rural district that would become NISD but didn’t consider it to be a worthy investment.

  12. You very well might be surprised to find out which districts are the best funded. Often they are actually some of the worst performing districts. Look up the numbers. SCUCISD (ranked #5 best district spends $6,800), North East (ranked #4 best district spends $7,729 per student), Alamo Heights (#1 spends $8,790), SAISD spends $8,900, Edgewood spends $8,883, South San spends $8,600. Money isn’t always the answer to the problems. We live in Schertz Cibolo Universal City ISD, spends up to $2,000 per student less than many of these districts but recently was ranked higher than a federal block grant funded district that spends nearly $11,000 per student. What could our district do with an extra $2,000 per student? And I am not complaining about SCUCISD, they are great.

    • Those are interesting figures and worth looking into a bit further than the bottom line totals. I would be curious to know how much of the $ per student is spent directly on instruction in each district. There is a much greater need for family support and social services for students in the lower income districts. They are an important piece of the funding and I suspect are part of the total calculation of $ per student spending as the situations that require these services are much more common here. Additionally, if the funding must be redirected away from instruction and teacher pay, the lower income districts will not have a chance to attract top talent that is an integral part of changing the dynamic. The responsibility of the teachers here is compounded by a large portion of their students in tough family circumstances and the effect it can have on their ability to learn. I would also be interested to know how having a larger percentage of the budget going directly to instruction affects student/teacher ratios. The need for greater resources is real and never an apples to apples comparison. I do agree that there is also a need for reduced bureaucracy and stronger leadership in many districts.

      Good article and a lot to research and think about on this one.

    • Very interesting stats. The better performing school districts have more engaged parents. I won’t claim to know all the drivers of that engagement, but I believe it’s true. No amount of additional per-student dollars (from reduced overhead costs or any other source) can counteract lack of parental engagement. It’s a societal problem and one that spans generations.

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