School District Consolidation on the South Side Will Take Political Bravery, But It Can Be Done

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Robert C. Zamora Middle School.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

The South San Antonio Independent School District is one of several districts eyed for consolidation under a 2002 plan that failed to gain traction.

It was 2002, and then-Mayor Ed Garza and I were flying to Mexico City to bid on the 2007 Pan American Games, but instead of sports, our conversation was about education – more specifically, a topic that remains relevant in local public education today: school district consolidation. At that time, Garza was laser-focused on Southside development. But no matter how much infrastructure development he stimulated, families were still moving away from the older and Southside districts to find better schools for their children. 

Garza asked the Legislature to create a management authority that included a “combined” central and Southside school district for San Antonio. All Bexar County districts south of U.S. Highway 90 would have been consolidated under the proposal, except for East Central and Southwest ISDs. The proposed new district would combine and elevate the oldest and densest urban school districts, struggling with declining enrollment, with the rural southern districts just outside of Loop 410. The board was to be appointed by the mayor.

Garza was absolutely right. Without an excellent school district, the inner city and South Side had no hope of an economic resurgence. School district consolidation was the only reasonable answer. It is now 17 years later, and the situation is unchanged.

Each “economic area” in our community needs a district tailored to meeting the educational and economic needs and opportunities in that community. We have a rising district – San Antonio Independent School District – for the center city; excellent districts represent both Northeast and Northwest San Antonio, but the majority of the southern sector of our city and county is a dysfunctional, political omelet – and you can’t unscramble an egg without wholesale change.

Studying campaign mailers and newspaper interviews, we found the highest-performing school districts were the least political. For every bit of non-educational campaigning (nationalizing local campaigns or focusing on non-educational issues), school district performance dropped proportionally. The most political, those on our South Side, were performing the worst – and most still are.

There was nothing wrong with the administrators, teachers, or coaches in those districts. The problems were 100-percent caused by the politicization of their school boards. The problem became “How do we de-politicize a school district?” We developed two models, but both would take strong legislation.

An alternative approach to a mayor-appointed combined school board would be for the Legislature to create a UMSD, or University Model School District, which would act for 20 years. At the end of 20 years, it would revert to an independent school district, and elections would be held. During oversight by the UMSD, the board of trustees would comprise presidents (or their designees) from each of the universities in San Antonio and the chancellor of the Alamo Community College District.

The University of Texas at San Antonio, Texas A&M University-San Antonio, Trinity University, the University of the Incarnate Word, Our Lady of the Lake University, St. Mary’s University, and the Alamo Colleges would each have one board slot. They would hire the superintendent and implement the most cutting-edge educational systems to be modeled in this new district of the future. Within a few years, this could become the school district in San Antonio.

We gave it a 20-year window so that a generation would pass. As we have seen at South San ISD, which was governed by the state for four years but then returned to an elected board of trustees, merely removing a cancer from a school district for a few years doesn’t work. As long as a few cells still live, it comes back as soon as the state removes its control. It will take a generation to de-politicize a school district and change the community expectations from patronage to performance.

Once we fleshed out our plans, Garza took them to the most influential politician on both the South Side and in the Legislature. That politician made it clear to Garza that consolidation had no chance. The school districts were the keys to that politician’s political base, and the consequences of “messing” with them would be catastrophic for the mayor. 

That politician also made it clear that no one would propose such legislation because it would poison the proposed management authority Garza was pushing for, with focus on the redevelopment of the former Air Force bases at Brooks and Kelly and land-use and zoning powers for undeveloped land around the future Toyota Motor Manufacturing facility.

The political difficulties will be no less today. It will take leaders from the community who are not politicians, but it will also take politicians who are willing to put their careers at risk so that future generations of children can capture theirs.

The educational and economic futures of the South Side are inexorably linked. Success will come from linking the public-school system in the South Side to our community-wide university system.

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