James Howard.
Recently retired SAISD trustee James Howard wants to see some local school districts consolidate. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

After more than two decades serving on the San Antonio Independent School District board, trustee James Howard has gotten a close-up look at what it takes for school districts to function. One of his takeaways: San Antonio and its environs have too many school districts, and some should consolidate.

“Something needs to be done,” Howard said in an interview with the Rivard Report. “We have got 16 districts in Bexar County alone. That is ridiculous.”

In fact, the total number of independent school districts in the county could be set anywhere from 15 to 19 depending on where boundaries are drawn. The smallest district, Lackland ISD, enrolled 1,051 students last year, while the largest, Northside ISD, enrolled 106,086.

Howard’s reasoning is that if a few districts facing the same budget and academic obstacles consolidated, they could combine their resources and be able to provide better education for students.

He singled out South San, Edgewood, Harlandale, and San Antonio ISDs as good candidates for consolidation, and also mentioned East Central and Judson ISDs as other potential districts that could join forces or be absorbed into larger districts.

“Right now we are just drawing resources from each other as well as the charter schools, and we are not doing anything,” said Howard, who retired from SAISD’s board this week.

Under Texas law, consolidation can be initiated either by a resolution adopted by a school district’s board of trustees or a petition signed by the required number of registered voters in a district. The districts would then hold an election on the matter. If all districts participating in the consolidation have a majority of voters approving, the districts would be consolidated.

Unless a local consolidation agreement states otherwise, the districts would be governed by the board of trustees from the district with the greatest membership on the last day of the school year before the consolidation until board elections in the new, consolidated district are held.

Getting boards of trustees to agree to the process is the primary obstacle to consolidation. To vote in favor of consolidation may mean voting to give up powers that come with elected office. In the last 35 years, only 31 consolidations have taken place across the entire state, with the majority happening between small districts with few campuses.

“You’re not going to find a lot of districts that are in support of it,” South San Antonio ISD board President Connie Prado said of consolidation. “We have a very rich history – South San goes back to World War II, many, many years. There is this huge sense of community here and I think it would be hard to actually get the people to support that.”

Prado pointed out that school districts typically carry debt from bond issues and associated projects, so consolidation would bring up the question of who would assume the debt.

Connie Prado is the new President of the South San ISD Board of Trustees.
South San ISD Board President Connie Prado Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Harlandale ISD board President Ricardo Moreno posed similar questions. While acknowledging that he could see both pros and cons in districts consolidating, Moreno wondered what consolidation would mean for the overall property wealth of a district. If Harlandale ISD was absorbed into SAISD, for example, would that make the consolidated district subject to state recapture payments because of the newly combined property values?

The Harlandale trustee also emphasized that consolidation could affect equity in allocating resources to poorer sections of a large district.

Moreno agreed with Prado that the culture of the South Side isn’t homogenous.

“Being on the South Side of San Antonio, even though we have South San, Edgewood, Southside, Southwest, we are all very similar, but also very different,” Moreno said. “You can’t just clump them together and say we are the same thing. We share some of the same life experiences growing up, we share some of the same educational experiences … but there are little differences that make us unique.”

Howard said he had spoken to some school board members from a few districts about the possibility of consolidation but thinks the conversation may have to come from a higher level than the school board.

“I’m just looking at it as something we need to talk about,” Howard said. “At least if I can get it to become a serious conversation then I feel like I have accomplished something.”

Howard described his conversations with legislators as more positive than the ones he has had with school board members. While he doesn’t think the Legislature will move forward with consolidation if they don’t have some local traction, he does think it could be a more developed conversation.

State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) agreed that consolidation needs to be discussed.

“We are past the point where this is an untouchable issue,” Bernal said, suggesting that the topic should be studied further with ample local input.

Bernal added that he is not necessarily for consolidation, but he is for considering all options to improve San Antonio’s education landscape.

The current map of local school districts was formed by a series of consolidations throughout the 20th century. Most recently, in 2013, State. Rep. Roland Gutierrez (D-San Antonio) worked on legislation to require the Texas Education Agency to study consolidation.

The resulting study only looked at consolidation in counties with more than seven school districts and 10 open-enrollment charter schools. This included Bexar County along with Dallas, Harris, Tarrant, and Travis counties. At the time, an entirely consolidated Bexar County would have resulted in a mega-district with more than 320,000 students. The study concluded that consolidation would increase the cost of education and inefficiency.

After looking at the study, Gutierrez told the Express-News that he planned to file a bill in 2015, initiating a more detailed study of what consolidation would look like specifically in Bexar County. That study has not been conducted.

Gutierrez did not respond to requests for comment.

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the Rivard Report.