Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
On the May 6 ballot, seats on five Bexar County school district boards will be up for election. In some cases, such as San Antonio ISD, campaigning incumbents are calling attention to their board's great strides in cohesion and effectiveness. In others, such as Southside ISD, which is currently under state control due to board misconduct, challengers are making the case for needed change.
Over the last 14 months, three Bexar County school boards have been deemed dysfunctional enough to merit State oversight in one form or another. In February 2016, the State appointed a conservator to South San ISD in order to bring the board back to a healthy, functional state. Shortly after, in May 2016, Edgewood ISD officially came under State control, with an appointed board of managers replacing its elected trustees. In January 2017, Southside ISD lost its appeal to preserve its accreditation status and avoid State takeover, being placed under the control of a board of managers.
Even SAISD, which has recently fallen into a healthy lockstep with Superintendent Pedro Martinez, saw 11-year board veteran Olga Hernandez indicted in a federal bribery investigation tied to her actions on the SAISD board. The board appointed her replacement, Christina Martinez, who was sworn in on Monday.
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, in both 2014 and 2015, the Northside ISD school board was recognized by the H-E-B Excellence in Education Awards as one of the best in the state – and it has continued on that trajectory. The criteria for such awards goes beyond test scores, examining the board itself and how its members foster student progress and community engagement.
In an interview with the Rivard Report, NISD Superintendent Brian Woods and Board President Katie Reed reflected on the continued strength of the “team of eight” leading San Antonio’s largest school district, and why so many districts struggle.
The challenge comes down to culture, Woods said.
“Can you create this kind of reciprocating culture in which the school district does a good job by parents, kids, and patrons?” he asked.
With enrollment topping 105,000, that is a lot of kids to do good by. It is made more complicated by the fact that the district bridges some of the city’s wealthiest and poorest zip codes. The district is adjacent to both Edgewood ISD and SAISD in the south, and encompasses Shavano Park, the Dominion, and other affluent zip codes up north.
For the district to serve both high- and low-income neighborhood schools, representation is key.
When Reed was first elected in 1989, she – along with now-Councilman Ray Lopez (D6) and Jesse Jones – was recruited to run for the at-large board in an effort to diversify racial and geographic representation.
“At that time, there may have been some people on the board who were there for the wrong reason,” Reed said.
As with some at-large elections, many of the representatives came from the same area, while other areas were underrepresented. Shortly after Reed was elected, the board switched to single-member districts, which guarantees geographic diversity. San Antonio's City Council made the same switch a little more than a decade before the NISD board to give the Southside more representation.
However, Reed said, unlike City Council, the single-member districts are not intended to be zones of representation.
“This is just a method to be elected from an area,” said Reed. “You represent every student in the district.”
On May 6, Trustee Carol Harle will face a challenge from Paul Gass, an Army colonel. Harle was elected in 2013 to represent District 6, which includes The Dominion and Shavano Park. Whatever the outcome, Woods and Reed expect the board to remain effective .
During election season, the board closely guards against the kinds of accusations, mistrust, and fear-mongering that can arise during a campaign.
When candidates file to run for a school board seat, district officials invite them to a training session so they can learn more about the district. At the training, the board briefs candidates on the culture and expectations of the board. Candidates learn that they will be expected to attend events outside their district and are given data and facts about the district to inform their campaign.
“We do not want candidates out there giving false info to the community,” Reed said.
Once the board is in place, its members are held to high standards, especially when it comes to the district’s code of ethics. Operating procedures, which include the handling of complaints, policy on school visits, and other things that Woods said “have a tendency to fracture boards,” can only be changed by unanimous vote, making consensus essential. When changing the operating procedure, board members try to be as specific as possible to keep things from being left open to interpretation.
To keep things moving efficiently, the board has active committees to delve into topics that require extended research and debate. While this requires a great amount of trust on the part of the whole board, there is an expectation that committees make their research available to all board members so that no one feels like they are being hoodwinked when a topic comes to a vote.
“To the degree that you can, you have to make sure that you’ve [raised] all seven members' knowledge on the subject so that everyone is on an even playing field at the beginning of the debate,” Woods said.
Of course, with a volunteer board, information gathering and research relies heavily on district staff and the superintendents who make recommendations. The greater the trust between the district and the board, the more effective the governance and operations will be, Woods and Reed explained.
This is why the leadership of NISD refers to itself as the “team of eight” – seven school board members and one superintendent who work together.
Not all boards have this relationship with their superintendent. Some boards see their primary function as providing accountability. While the NISD board members recognize that is a big part of their role, their collaborative approach keeps them from micromanaging Woods. Performance in the district speaks to the success of that approach.
Micromanagement is one of the problems cited in the State investigations into all three districts it later sanctioned. Another problem is corruption. Two Southside ISD trustees were found to have interfered with hiring and awarding contracts. Former South San ISD school board candidates tell of being intimidated by incumbent board members and those who benefit from their position.
While district size and economic isolation are not “causal” in board conflicts of interest, Woods said, it does leave districts vulnerable.
While NISD started as a rural district in 1948, bringing together tiny school districts from all over 355 square miles, it has grown quickly. In the beginning the tax base was 80% homeowners, but it rapidly diversified with development. The 9,200 businesses on the Northside are now vital to the health of the district.
“When the school district is the biggest employer in the known universe of the community, that’s going to lead to the perception of a tremendous amount of power,” Woods said.
Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4), who helped start the advocacy group South San Kids First, said that is the case in South San ISD, resulting in parents being afraid to speak up because of repercussions for students or family members employed by the district.
The fact that NISD is only the fifth-largest employer within its boundaries reaches back to the days before City Council operated with single-member districts. When major development occurred in the 1960s and '70s, it was on the Northside, while landfills, junk yards, and similar industries skewed south. The implications of those decisions are still being felt today.