School Board Races Reflect Each District’s Strengths, Weaknesses

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Sixteen individual school districts reside in Bexar County.

Courtesy / GoPublic

Sixteen individual school districts reside in Bexar County.

Citywide elections draw far more attention, money, and candidate forums, but voters throughout San Antonio and Bexar County also will elect school board members in the May 6 general election.

Early voting starts Monday and extends until May 2. For a list of early voting sites, click here. 

You can tell a lot just by reading the candidates’ names on the ballot, depending on which of the county’s public school districts you reside in. Some districts make a strong effort to educate voters, while others make information hard to come by.

Some voters will be choosing between experienced candidates with leadership credentials and a winning track record of supporting education. Others will simply be trying to extricate their district from the control of board members who have used their seats for personal and political gain and drawn the ire of the Texas Education Agency, which has intervened in three of the city’s districts where school board malfeasance remains a deeply entrenched issue.

Northside 

In the Northside ISD District 6 race, incumbent Carole Harle, 61, will face a challenge from Paul Gass, 51. Harle is a former assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction from Harlandale ISD. She has a Ph.D. in curriculum studies, and served on the board of P16 Plus. Gass is a colonel in the United States Army Reserves. 

Southside

NISD’s options offer a sharp contrast to those in Southside ISD. Its school board is under a State-appointed board of managers, so trustees elected in May will not govern the district for at least three years.

Nonetheless, community members have stepped in to run against incumbents of the dysfunctional board. Southside ISD board members are all at-large.

John Lujan is a Southside ISD alumnus and parent who briefly served as a state representative for Texas House District 118 before losing the seat to Tomás Uresti in November. He said that the current school board races illustrate the reason many of the southern districts continue to struggle. Some of the candidates challenging the incumbents have “heart and spirit,” he said, but they are going up against an entrenched system that requires serious political and business acumen.

“We need experienced professionals on these boards,” Lujan said.

Texas Rep. John Lujan (D118) listens in during a break-out session following the town hall meeting. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

John Lujan listens during a break-out session following a town hall meeting regarding South San Antonio Independent School District in May of 2016.

Loren Brewer, 50, who currently holds Position 3 on the board, was cited in the TEA investigation for misuse of his board position. He is running for Position 4 on the May ballot.

Running against Brewer are Daniel “Buddy” Vallejo, 54, a truck driver; Maggie Morales, 24, a cashier; and Benito Flores, 45, an inspector for CPS Energy.

In December when the Southside ISD board decided not to legally contest the State takeover, only Brewer and Norberto Chavez voted for a lawsuit. Chavez, 50, is a general contractor and currently holds Position 5. He is now running for Position 3. Challenging him will be Sonny Santos, 54, a “driver,” and Ruth S. Arocha, 66, a retired State Farm Insurance administrative assistant.

Running to unseat Chavez in Position 5 are Anita Reyna, 58, and Bruce Alan Brannon, 47. Reyna currently works in customer service as an independent contractor for Conduent, a business process services company that separated from Xerox earlier this year. Brannon is a Whataburger general manager.

With mentorship in training, Lujan believes that those with a heart to serve could be great board members. But that mentorship can be hard to find, Lujan added. The trend is that once professionals who come from the Southside have achieved a certain level in their career, they often move away to follow opportunities north. They buy houses in strong school districts and contribute to the schools in them – That one-way flow itself is part of the problem. 

Lujan would like an additional tool for struggling districts like Southside ISD, one that would create a tiny recirculation of professional talent. He would like to see a “4-3 rule” wherein superintendents can appoint three members to the school board – not bound by district lines – and for those three to be confirmed by four elected members. This, Lujan said, would allow superintendents to get the professional support they need on the board, and possibly engage some of the former Southside ISD students who have moved into more affluent districts as they have progressed in their careers. 

“There are people who are from the Southside who would love to give back,” Lujan said.

The other benefit to professional boards is that they are less likely to be overwhelmed by the behavior of fellow board members or the courtship of outside contractors looking for an advantage when it comes time to award project contracts.

“It’s too easy for these contractors to come in with the trips and the money,” Lujan said. “If you’ve never been wooed like that, it’s hard [to see through it or turn it down].”

While the elected board will not take control for another three years, it would oversee major phases of the implementation of Southside ISD’s $59.75 million bond, should it pass.

Across the district, facilities were inadequate for a growing student population, Southside ISD Superintendent Mark Eads said. He had hoped to show a longer trend of improving administrative and academic health before proposing a bond but saw immediate issues that needed to be addressed.

“I uncovered that we are going to have facility needs much sooner than we ever anticipated,” Eads told the Rivard Report in February.

Harlandale

Neighboring Harlandale ISD is not currently in the same peril, however residents have faced similar troubles in the recent past. The district enrollment tops 15,000, so it is required to post campaign finance reports filed by all school board candidates. Other information must be obtained from the district through a public information request. 

In 2017 the district will have two school board races. District 2 incumbent Christine Carillo, 50, is a homemaker. Her challenger, Orlando Salazar, 57, is the president of Cevallos Insurance.

In Harlande ISD’s District 5, three candidates are vying for the unexpired seat vacated by Uresti when he won his seat in the Texas House. Josie Scales, 69, is retired from the insurance industry; Jesus C. Tejeda, 42, is an insurance agent with USAA; and Christopher Cantu is a consultant.

In both Harlandale and Southside ISDs, information on candidates is hard to find. Obtaining candidate filings requires a written request to the public information officer in the district or a visit to the district office. Southside ISD has less than 15,000 students, and is thus exempt from posting campaign finance reports on its website.

Whereas campaign signs and literature are expensive, information is free. A district’s efforts to educate the community and equip voters with information can improve transparency, accountability, and access to elected officials.

The fact that South San ISD, Edgewood ISD, and Southside ISD have struggled with board dysfunction can be tied primarily to their economic isolation, but size does matter. With a small geographic area to pull from, a small voter base, and fewer accountability measures, board positions can function as lifetime appointments in spite of poor performance.

This has led some to raise the issue of consolidation – combining districts to reduce provincialism.

If after years of State oversight TEA does not feel that a district is capable of independent self-governance, it does have the authority to dissolve the district and pursue consolidation with or annexation by another district. This measure is reserved for situations “far past the point of redemption,” TEA spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson said. “That is a decision not reached lightly.”

Districts that fail to improve after four years trigger the implementation of a law that requires TEA to revoke district accreditation. The district could, in that case, be dissolved and absorbed by a neighboring district.

Alamo Heights

Even without the legal requirement to make information easy to access, districts can take concerted measures to provide information to voters. Alamo Heights ISD is also exempt from posting campaign finance filings online, but it produces a voter guide. Candidates answer a series of questions, and their responses are compiled in a two-page PDF, available on the Alamo Heights High School PTSO Facebook Page. The candidates also participate in a candidate forum.

For Place 3 on the AHISD board, attorney Ryan Grant Anderson, 53, will face James Michael Nittoli, 50, director of golf at the San Antonio Country Club. The seat was previously held by Lynn S. Thompson, who is stepping down.

Place 4 incumbent Margaret Judson, 55, a sales associate, is challenged by Aimee Voorhies, 45, who lists her occupation as “tennis professional.”

AHISD is putting a $135 million bond before voters as well. In addition to a full battery of facility improvements, the bond will pay for technology infrastructure, new buses, and drought-resistant landscaping. It will also replace the Cambridge playground with a parking lot, and create a new, smaller playground closer to the school.

Judson

Judson ISD is asking voters to approve a $60 million bond to pay for facility improvements and buses, as well as Phase 2 construction of Veterans Memorial High School, which opened in the fall of 2016. 

In addition to the required postings in Judson ISD, the district posts candidate applications that list their various volunteer organizations and answer questions about their priorities for the district.

Running for the District 1 seat, Suzanne Kenoyer, 59, is a retired, 23-year veteran educator in Judson ISD. She faces Michael Holdman, 41, a rental manager at Equipment Depot. Rick Page appears on the sample ballot, but the district said he has been withdrawn from the race.

In District 3 Debra Eaton, 61, a realtor with Noble Group Realty, faces Gilbert Flores, 64, a City of San Antonio accountant.

Competing for the District 5 seat, Jennifer Rodriguez, 38, director of alumni impact for Teach for America, faces Arnoldo Salinas, 74, who is retired.

On May 6, voters in SAISD will also be electing trustees, and citywide voters will determine a mayor, Council members, and whether Alamo Colleges and the City of San Antonio bond initiatives should pass.

3 thoughts on “School Board Races Reflect Each District’s Strengths, Weaknesses

  1. John Lujan lost a Southside Independent School Board race in 1993.

    John Lujan –knowingly– used an old photo of an honorably retired surgeon and soldier in uniform, a man who did not and does not support Mr. Lujan. Lujan used this photo for his failed 2016 St. Rep. Campaign without authorization from Col. Robert Solenberger, U.S.A. Med. Corp. (ret.), my husband.

    A press release was sent at that time by Col. Solenberger.

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