Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
More than two months since her resignation, Helen Madla-Prather’s seat as District 6 trustee on the South San Antonio Independent School District board remains vacant.
The board called for applications for her open seat on Dec. 6, the same day Madla-Prather resigned, and another that belonged to District 3 Trustee Linda Longoria, who resigned Oct. 31, 2017.
District spokeswoman Jocelyn Durand said officials hoped for more than 100 applications. After accepting applications for about a month, the board received interest from four candidates.
The board interviewed three candidates for the open District 3 seat, ultimately choosing Edward Mungia for the position. The lone applicant for District 6 did not live within the geographic boundaries, leaving the post without a qualified candidate. Applications were again opened, but no one applied.
The board of trustees has not decided whether to reopen the position for applications or to wait for a November election to fill the seat. Because less than a year was left on Madla-Prather’s term in office, state law allows South San ISD to delay filling the position until the November election.
Durand said trustees will decide the course of action at a future meeting. The Feb. 21 board agenda does not mention the vacant position.
Trustees have indicated they don’t want to wait almost a year to fill the post.
“I’m proud of the progress our board has made over the past year, and I don’t want to take a step back by leaving a portion of our board unrepresented,” District 7 Trustee Elda Flores said at the December meeting when trustees elected to fill the vacancies by appointment.
Questions remain: who will run during an election that would not otherwise seek an open appointment? And, in lieu of interested candidates, what is South San Antonio ISD supposed to do with its open seat?
Shari Albright, chair of Trinity University’s Department of Education, said other districts find success with leadership programs, geared toward drumming up interest in district leadership positions.
Albright referenced Leadership SAISD, an independent nonprofit that provides a free, nine-month educational program for those interested in getting more involved in the district. The nonprofit’s website says graduates are equipped with the skills to get involved with parent teacher associations, board of trustee task forces, nonprofit boards, and other volunteer positions.
The program has been in place since 2013. Graduates include current SAISD trustees Steve Lecholop and Christina Martinez, former trustee Olga Hernandez, current State Board of Education member Marisa Perez (D-San Antonio), and City Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5). Several former candidates for the board were also graduates of the program.
Albright said Houston and Dallas ISDs have also had success with similar programs, and wonders if implementing a program within South San ISD would help increase the amount of interest for serving on its board.
South San Antonio ISD lacks a program specifically designed to train future district leaders, but does have South San Kids First, an education advocacy group focused on the Southside. It was formed after financial mismanagement and inappropriate conduct led the Texas Education Agency to appoint a conservator to intervene in school board affairs. Given the board’s progress in addressing those concerns, that conservator has since been pulled. Two trustees voted into office in the most recent elections, Louis Ybarra and Elda Flores, had South San Kids First’s support.
Former San Antonio ISD board President Julián Treviño agreed that the district could find success in pulling from a known pool of candidates.
Treviño, who conducts superintendent searches for Houston-based law firm Thompson & Horton, LLP, said he has seen districts find qualified candidates by assigning that work to board committees that already exist. He said board members should be looking at community members who have shown interest in contributing to the district and encourage them to run for higher office.
He did as much when he served on SAISD’s board from 1996 until 2008. Treviño said he knew one year into his last four-year term that he would not be running again for re-election, and started reviewing his options for a successor.
Treviño said once a retiring incumbent identifies a worthy replacement, he or she can move to resign early and make an appointment. This allows someone without much experience, but who has been vetted by the board previously, run in the next election with a year in office.
Some criticize the appointment process as undemocratic because it could give the appointee an unfair advantage against challengers.
“It doesn’t preclude anyone from running against anyone,” Treviño said. “The point is to have a plan.”
This all depends, however, on having interested candidates who qualify for the seat and actually live within the district. These geographical boundaries matter because South San Antonio ISD elected to divide up the district in single member districts, where each of the seven trustees represent a different area.
The switch from at-large to single member districts was the trend statewide in a period when racial segregation was at an all time high, Treviño said. Districts attempted to divide up their areas to give everyone, especially the minority residents, their own voice. Now that South San Antonio ISD is more than 97 percent Hispanic, he says, single member districts aren’t performing that function.
“So you still have single member districts, because…?” Treviño asked rhetorically.
South San ISD graduate and Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) also found that geographic limitations can eliminate prospective candidates from the process.
When the district was initially accepting applications, Saldaña posted on his Facebook page, encouraging qualified candidates to submit an application. Several commenters noted they didn’t live in the district, one said she lived two blocks outside its boundaries.
Saldaña has been reaching out to residents of the district to encourage them to apply for the position, he told the Rivard Report. It’s a big ask – some board members work long hours for no pay – so he tries to emphasize how important the role is.
Should the district not have any interested candidates, Treviño said the board will just have to operate as a board of six.
“The community of that [vacant] district will feel like they don’t have any representation,” he said. “The supposition is [the other trustees] represent everyone, [they] are a member for the entire district.”
Saldaña doesn’t want to see the district “held back by an empty seat.”
“I would think it is irresponsible to allow seven months to go on without a district having a voice,” he said.
This story was originally published on Feb. 18, 2018.