It’s unfortunate that we don’t hear more about the dedicated teachers and promising young students in South San, but the reality is that rotten school board politics overshadow any good work being done in the classroom.
The district is now the subject of state investigation in the wake of School Board President Connie Prado’s power play to force the reopening of three closed campuses that, in the ever-shrinking school district, cannot attract enough students to operate efficiently. The political ploy cost the district $6 million that could have been spent on badly needed counselors and social services and last week led to the forced resignation of the superintendent after less than one year on the job, causing three trustees to resign in protest.
Education Reporter Emily Donaldson spends a lot of her time tracking one melodramatic turn after another in Bexar County’s four Southside school districts under State intervention or investigation. There are 1,007 school districts in Texas; only 11 are under state intervention. Four districts located on San Antonio’s Southside have been or are currently the subject of investigation by the Texas Education Agency for school board malfeasance, financial irregularities, or trustee misconduct: Harlandale, Edgewood, Southside, and South San.
San Antonio’s 40,000 school-age children who come from families that live along a geographic band that stretches from north of U.S. Highway 90 to south of Loop 410 have been dealt a bad hand in life because these are the four contiguous districts that for decades have failed so many who have entered their doors in pursuit of a good education and a bright future.
No other Texas city is the subject of so much scrutiny, yet nothing ever really seems to change. Do not equate State intervention with automatic improvement. Sometimes it is hard to see what good, if any, the State’s half-measures accomplish. The TEA monitor assigned to South San isn’t even allowed to deliver her reports in open session at board meetings. Each incremental disciplinary step the TEA at times imposes, including the appointment of a board of managers to replace elected school board officials, fails to lead to measurably better education outcomes.
What Donaldson has reported so thoroughly about these small Southside districts should matter to people citywide. Failing school districts perpetuate generational cycles of low academic achievement and poverty. They are a terrible betrayal of the children in those districts, and a social and economic burden the entire city and county ultimately must bear. Until Texas’ elected officials get serious about exercising their powers of consolidation, nothing is going to change.
At the heart of the South San rot is Connie Prado, who has held a board seat for more than 20 years. She is married to a convicted felon named Raul Prado, who served before her on the school board, then San Antonio City Council, and was seeking a seat in the Texas House of Representatives at the time of his arrest and conviction for soliciting and taking tens of thousands of dollars in bribes and kickbacks from contractors. Raul still casts a corrupt shadow over the district’s dealings, occasionally showing up at school board meetings as a “citizen to be heard” to tangle with trustees who don’t fall in line with his bullying wife.
The board has burned though seven superintendents since 2010. You could give district employees a nice raise with the millions of dollars Prado and her cronies have spent to open moribund campuses, pay severance agreements, attorney fees, fire one law firm for another, and the like.
Former Superintendent Alexandro Flores was the latest to feel the Prado guillotine at the Sept. 2 board meeting. He didn’t even last one year. Three of the trustees who tried to stand up to Prado and oppose Flores’ departure resigned in protest and walked out. Prado didn’t flinch. It was business as usual for her.
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Flores’ mistake was opposing Prado in her determination to reopen three shuttered campuses in the declining school district. The more schools, the more employees, and the more employees, the more patronage. The more schools, the more contracts, and the more contracts, well, finish the sentence yourself.
The district had nearly 10,000 students when West Campus High School, with only 600 students, was closed in 2012. There are 8,529 students this year, and the number keeps falling. Yet West Campus and two other schools are once again opened. So far the three combined have attracted a ridiculously low total of 450 students.
You can’t understand Prado without knowing her husband. For newcomers to San Antonio and young professionals who were not reading the news in 2002, it’s hard to imagine the culture of public corruption that hung like a cloud over San Antonio back then. Raul Prado was in the thick of it.
In 2002, a Bexar County grand jury indicted Raul as the head of an organized crime ring of eight other public officials and contractors, including Enrique Martin, Raul’s former staff member who succeeded him on City Council, as well as one of Martin’s Council aides. Martin and fellow council member John Sanders had been indicted on federal bribery charges just weeks earlier.
Two Alamo Community College District (now the Alamo Colleges) trustees, Donald McClure and Jesse Gonzales, and former board chairman Robert “Tinker” Garza also were indicted. Former District Attorney Susan Reed charged all of them with conspiracy to commit bribery, bid rigging, money laundering, tampering with governmental records, and aggravated perjury.
It was an era in this city when some elected officials expected cash in envelopes in return for consideration, and too often, people doing business with the County, the City, and with school districts complied.
The inevitable plea deals and prison terms are old news now, yet the Prados live on and South San is their fiefdom. Few people bother to vote in school board elections, yet trustees control tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money. The trustee talent pool is especially shallow on the South Side with so many small districts, so the picking is ripe for political machines.
All of the recent South San news has occurred despite the presence of a TEA monitor. The trustees who quit last week have called for more aggressive TEA action.
State Education Commissioner Mike Morath has the authority to intervene and impose harsher sanctions, including the appointment of a conservator, who can override board votes; or a board of managers, which would replace Prado and the remaining trustees.
Those steps have already been taken in other Southside school districts and they have proven to be inadequate. If the districts were businesses, they would have gone bankrupt a long time ago with their assets absorbed into other working businesses and their liabilities eliminated.
The question is whether Gov. Greg Abbott, Morath, and Texas legislators will decide the time has come to force district consolidation. There are no signs that is going to happen. Let’s not share that bad news with the 8,529 students who still call South San home.