Longtime SAISD Trustee To Push for Bexar County School District Consolidation

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James Howard.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Recently retired SAISD trustee James Howard wants to see some local school districts consolidate.

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.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

South San ISD Board President Connie Prado

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.

14 thoughts on “Longtime SAISD Trustee To Push for Bexar County School District Consolidation

  1. Consolidation seems like a great way to dilute the voices of certain communities. So why is the Rivard Report so eager for people to buy into it? This is the question that I hope all readers are asking.

    • How would consolidation “dilute the voices of certain communities”? Many of the districts listed in the story have had their elected trustees investigated by TEA and/or replaced by conservators in the last decade. We’ve seen the shenanigans that the South San board pulled in reopening campuses, even though their constituents were asking them not to. Many residents of SAISD feel they are not being listened to by their trustees and superintendent as schools in the district are being turned over to charter school companies. The voices of community members are already not being heard by their elected officials.

      I am not an expert, so I do not know if district consolidation is actually in the best interest of the students of Bexar County. I do believe that it is self-interested and short-sighted for trustees like Connie Prado and Ricardo Moreno to dismiss the idea out of hand. If they and other trustees in Bexar County truly have the interests of students at heart, and not just their own hold on power, then they should at least hear James Howard out and study the issue closely.

  2. These districts were set up to segregate communities from receiving the benefit of a certain tax base. Look at Dallas ISD as an example. There is only one school district for the city of Dallas. Each campus and neighborhood keeps it’s own unique character, but gets to share (somewhat equally, can’t say it’s perfect) in the total tax and state contributions. Consolidating administration expenses also saves money and frees up additional funding to attract top talent to guide the district towards a world-class education for every student. It’s past time to be looking into this.

  3. 16 separate and unequal school districts was designed to keep our community divided and our inner city students from an equal education.
    I support the idea of consolidation, especially if Northside and Northeast districts are included. It’s time to end de facto segregation in our public school system!

  4. Congratulations to retiring SAISD board member Howard for voicing the proposition of consolidation of ISD’s in Bexar County. And kudos to Rep Bernal for being supportive of the concept as well.
    As a former SAISD teacher and now a District 9 city councilman I have been an advocate for district consolidation for many years.
    For all the positive reasons discussed and presented it is the best decision for our children and students across Bexar County. If only the elected school board officials would set aside their egos and self importance and work together for the children, then things could move forward on this valuable education improvement.

  5. Consolidation should be a slam dunk in terms of eliminating the bureaucracies, the scandals, the inefficiencies, and the hangers-on, like Prado, who has been in and out of the scene for twenty years. The military districts who have their own funding and excel in all the reported test scores should be left untouched, but perhaps four districts would provide significant efficiencies in duplicative services, such as procurement and transportation. Similary, each district probably has its own athletic director, and one wonders why sixteen ADs are required at what must be a significant salary when grouped together. Will consolidation happen? Probably not, unless the largely dormant voter base awakens and demands action.

  6. Consolidation is an old idea that hasn’t been pushed very hard.
    Many departments are duplicated throughout the districts, and this way money can be saved. Perhaps no superintendent wants to give up control and power though.

  7. Having been a provider of free educational programming for the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, the Carver Community Cultural Center, and Youth Orchestra of San Antonio, I can say from experience that trying to coordinate with so many school districts to offer services is a nightmare. I believe students would be better served, in terms of access to community resources, by the consolidation of some of these districts.

  8. So Howard woke up a few days AFTER retiring and has this to say only now? Speaks volumes about the TPS’s politics……..

  9. I worked in LA as a teacher for four years. 2nd largest district in U.S. at the time. Years ago the area consolidated. Observing the district’s workings I conclude that none of the problems currently listed are going to disappear with consolidation. They will revolve into different forms but corruption, nepotism, favoritism, racism whatever will remain. Innovations, competition, identity, flexibility, etc will be sacrificed Yes some districts could merge successfully but not all 19. In addition progressive radicals would gain much more mind numbing power over children because they would lead accountable to local parents.

  10. It could equal out the school needs of the city. My Northside friends are struggling to pay bills as school taxes go up every year. Northside school districts are building school after school. People are losing homes and moving back to the Southside or newly revitalized Eastside for relief. On our sides of town, our schools were closed because parents moved to get their kid that “Northside education” in impressive schools that look like junior colleges. Now we’re saying Welcome Home! Lately, loads of houses are being built to accommodate the influx but our schools are now smaller. IDEA and schools like IDEA are taking our kids people. I hope the Northside can survive when all their families leave because there is no other financial choice. The wave is coming, hopefully our City government has a plan. The Northside should stop building so many schools or perhaps build smaller schools and give your residents a tax break.

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