Olga Hernandez: A Failure in School Board Leadership

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Olga M. Hernandez leaves the board room. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Olga Hernandez leaves the SAISD board room.

A jury found former longtime school board member Olga Hernandez not guilty Tuesday of taking bribes from an insurance contractor doing business with the San Antonio Independent School District, but that doesn't mean she is innocent.

In the court of public opinion, where there are no skilled defense lawyers leading Hernandez through carefully rehearsed testimony or making persuasive closing arguments to the jury, another verdict is clear: Hernandez selfishly accepted thousands of dollars in cash gifts, travel, meals, and lodging in the gambling capitals of Las Vegas, Reno, and Shreveport, free Spurs playoff tickets, and even a $500 gift card to buy herself jewelry – all provided by individuals who benefited from lucrative insurance service contracts with the school district.

How would Hernandez explain her behavior were she to stand before the district's 54,000 socioeconomically disadvantaged students and their families who can't afford the price of a school lunch? Would any of those working-class mothers and fathers who want a good public education and a better life for their children believe all that money came from a "friend" of Hernandez who just happened to depend on her vote and her voice to secure district business?

It will be interesting to watch and see if Hernandez addresses the district at large to offer an accounting of her conduct as a trustee. This is an opportunity to expand on her courtroom testimony, a teachable moment unlike any found in the classroom.

From where I sit, Hernandez beat the federal bribery rap with a "stupid" defense: She simply didn't know any better. She claimed she never realized that a friend showering gifts on her might be doing so because of her powerful position as a school board trustee who votes on tens of millions of dollars in contracts each year.

Hernandez can't pretend such ignorance of longstanding written policies on bribery and accepting gifts issued by the Texas Association of School Boards and adopted by the district, policies that she violated.

"While the Board legal policies speak to the law, we also have the ability to develop additional local policies that reflect expected standards," wrote Leslie Price, the district's spokeswoman, in response to my query about the district's written ethics policies. Price added, "I expect there will be more discussions related to this topic." (Readers can review the policies themselves by following the links above.)

District Superintendent Pedro Martinez and Board President Patti Radle do not need the prospect of Hernandez pursuing a return to the school board as a distraction, so a public statement now affirming that Hernandez knowingly violated those policies and failed to disclose a contractor plying her with cash and casino vacations should close the door on Hernandez's return.

Citizens are fed up with low-performing inner city school districts with a history of school board malfeasance. It's a legacy that burdens SAISD, even as it now enjoys a refreshing period of reform, progressive management, and school board cohesion and professionalism. Edgewood, Harlandale, and South San Antonio ISDs, to name three, are burdened by school board machines, individual trustees, or failed superintendents that have caused a massive loss of faith in inner city public schools, especially when coupled with the dismal education results these districts report year in and year out.

There always has been a disconnect between poverty-stricken citizens and inner city school boards that stands in stark contrast to the city's higher-performing districts, including the Northside, North East, and Alamo Heights ISDs, where there is far greater wealth and parental involvement, higher tax bases to support district budgets, and better education outcomes.

Few people vote in inner city school board elections, where a few hundred votes swing a single-member district. Yet trustees, once in place, wield outsized political power, controlling how hundreds of millions of dollars are spent in operating budgets and capital projects, and who wins and loses contracts.

It's a system ripe for kickbacks, which are hard enough for federal investigators to uncover and prosecute, as we witnessed this week, and all but impossible for journalists to track. No wonder there were courtroom gasps when the jury's verdicts of not guilty were read aloud by the presiding federal judge in Hernandez's trial.

Board Trustee Olga Hernandez (center) folds her resignation letter after publicly reading her intentions.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Board Trustee Olga Hernandez (center) folds her resignation letter after publicly reading her statement.

Among the area's low-performing inner city districts, SAISD has made significant strides in recent years. A more unified and purpose-driven school board recruited Martinez, a Mexican-born immigrant raised in Chicago who has delivered as a dynamic, visionary superintendent and has earned the support of the city's business leaders.

District officials have opened a series of in-district charter schools that are delivering dramatically better education outcomes than most traditional campuses, particularly the large high schools, which continue to suffer significant dropout rates and only graduate a minority of college-ready students. The fact remains that most students entering inner city public schools will not earn a college degree and all that comes with it in life.

Even with a unified school board, strong leadership from Superintendent Martinez, and positive trend lines, San Antonio's largest inner city school district does not need the distraction of a low-performing former trustee returning to the district. Public education is a big enough challenge for our most dedicated school leaders. There is no reason to return to the days of powerful trustees looking to do well by their friends.

14 thoughts on “Olga Hernandez: A Failure in School Board Leadership

  1. Good riddance to Olga. She was a narrow-minded, selfish, ineffective, corrupt trustee when she was on the board and I am very glad she is gone. My only regret is that she won’t serve time for her misdeeds.

  2. It is the duty of trustees, board members and commissioners of non-profit, public and quasi-public boards and commissions, to be aware of the policies in place that apply to their behavior as a bearer of the public trust. In the case of Ms. Hernandez, even though she was acquitted of bribery in a court of law, the policies that she violated by “not knowing” it was wrong to take gifts (the “good faith” defense), flies in the face of the legal standard applied in many courts that she “knew OR should have known” that it was wrong.
    When a defendant asserts a good faith defense, Courts will objectively consider what the defendant knew or should have known when it received the transfer – not what the defendant actually knew. See In re Agricultural Research & Technology Group, Inc., 916 F.2d 528, 535–36 (9th Cir. 1990). (stating that a Ponzi scheme investor claiming good faith must meet an objective standard, and possibly prove that a diligent inquiry would not have discovered the fraudulent purpose of the transfer, but declining to delineate a precise definition of good faith).
    The District Court for the Central District of California has applied this objective standard to third party lenders that received liens (the alleged fraudulent transfers) in exchange for loans made to a debtor perpetuating a fraudulent scheme. See Securities and Exchange Commission v. Capital Cove Bancorp LLC, 2015 WL 9701154 *6 (C.D. Cal. 2015). The District Court followed the Ninth Circuit B.A.P.’s holding in Cohen, reasoning that “[o]ne lacks the good faith that is essential to the [UVTA] if possessed of enough knowledge of the actual facts to induce a reasonable person to inquire further about the transaction.” Id. (quoting In re Cohen, 199 B.R. at 719). The District Court also followed the Ninth Circuit’s holding in Agricultural Research, explaining that “[s]uch inquiry notice suffices on the rationale that some facts suggest the presence of others to which a transferee may not safely turn a blind eye.” Id. (quoting In re Agricultural Research, 916 F.2d at 535–36). Therefore, courts should “look to what the [defendant] objectively ‘knew or should have known’ in questions of good faith, rather than examining what the [defendant] actually knew from a subjective standpoint.” Id.
    The school board must ask, would a reasonable person have believed that gifts of trips and cash from a potential school district contractor were not meant to influence her vote? Would a reasonable person have turned a blind eye to the possible appearance of bribery? It is clear that despite Ms. Herndandez’ aquittal, she “knew OR SHOULD HAVE KNOWN the ethics policies under which she served. Their violation, regardless of whether it was due to mere ignorance or willful ignorance of policy, is evidence of unacceptable performance (i.e., behavior contrary to board policy, whether she knew it was wrong or not), and is enough to justify a bar to her return to the school board.

  3. Great column Bob…and 100% correct. I’d love to know both the ethnic and educational makeup of hat jury. Regardless, their ignorance and stupidity knows no bounds.

    • Suzanne,

      I have followed your “stampede” for stroke alert in San Antonio and I was always proud to take care of you and your husband. With that being said I have never been so offended by your comments as this one. I stopped following on fb because of the racist comments on your page. It never ceases to amaze me the comments that you think are just fine to put in print. The ethnicity or education of the jurors should be of no concern. Nor should you blast that on comments. I am sorry that you feel as though someone of a different race or education than you or me is somehow “ignorant or stupid” because they came to a conclusion different than either of us would have. I would ask that you “rein it in” but knowing the rhetoric that spills out of your mouth I will not. I would hope that the “Doctors” that you claim are your “dear friends” would distance themselves from this vile attitude. If not it shows who they are. That is all. Merry Christmas

  4. OK but doesn’t it take a majority vote to win contracts in the ISD? Also didn’t she vote on staff recomondation? And wasn’t the insurance contracts the best? And last but not least there was also an insurance comity that picked what products they wanted for there fellow employees and the elected official was not on that comity. Let’s not forget that it was a7-0 vote to award the contracts. UNANIMOUS

  5. I believe Olga got away with spending time in prison, just like a lot of other so called leaders in our city. These leaders that are caught are protected by other dishonest leaders and walk away. It’s been going on for years. It has nothing to do with ( race or education), look what’s going on in the WHITE HOUSE !

  6. Another plug for professional jurists that are harder to manipulate. I think about that every time I report for jury duty and observe the inefficient system in action.

  7. Well folks look. There was not enough proof that she was bribed. Two of the star witnesses tried to set her up. Also all contracts were awarded by unanimous vote. The board voted on recomindation of the staff and insurance comity. What also was not brought out was that the Risk Manager had an affair with an insurance broker for one of the firms awarded the contract and the Risk Manager did not want this info getting out so she made life hard for that firm to do their job. The whole story will not be brought out for its truth. The US Gov only wanted certain info let out on this case

  8. I knew who wrote this piece without looking. Facts with class. I have moved to sunny Florida in a smallish town that has it’s “stuff” together in amazing ways – community efforts, utilities, police, vibrant downtown.

    But I am still well-acquainted with the school boards throughout Bexar County. Olga Hernandez is but one of many. Her behavior was blatant enough for someone to notice and prosecute. But this conduct, which robs students of small and large chances in life is a theft that should never be excused or tolerated. It is possible your illumination will help.

  9. I spent 10 yrs on a local school board. She needs to go to jail. Her not knowing any better is a joke. Hard to believe other board members did no know about this. Seems to be the norm in politics nowdays.

  10. Wow. With trustees too stupid to see a bribe in front of their face multiple times, no wonder such poor decisions are being made by the board. I saw something like this the other week where someone just assumes politicians “feather their nests” (see Senator Corker from TN). But it is unacceptable, and people need to be reminded it seems. She should do community service..although keep her away from approvals.

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