Emily Donaldson / Rivard Report
South San Antonio Independent School District officials announced in March that the 8,600 student district would face a $6.4 million budget shortfall in the coming school year. The financial squeeze is not uncommon in San Antonio, where many districts, funded primarily through property tax revenue and money from the state, have had to adjust to smaller budgets in the face of declining student enrollment.
South San's peer districts – San Antonio, Harlandale, Edgewood, and Southside ISDs – asked voters for approval to raise their property tax rate to shore up their general operations budget. Now, South San is doing the same.
For years, South San's maintenance and operations (M&O) tax rate, which funds the general operations of the district, has been set at $1.04 per $100 of property valuation. South San's peer districts have M&O rates of $1.17. South San officials estimate that increasing their M&O rate by 13 cents would bring in an additional $6.3 million in revenue.
For this reason, South San trustees voted 5-2 in June to call a tax ratification election. Early voting ends Aug. 10 at 5 p.m.
The M&O tax rate is only half of the equation for South San's total tax rate. If the tax increase is approved, the overall rate will increase to $1.58 per $100.
Election day is Aug. 14, and coalitions have organized on both sides of the issue.
Since early voting began, Stacey Alderete has stationed herself outside polling places, asking voters to reject the tax rate increase. Alderete, a former school board trustee, is volunteering with South San Accountability, a political action committee working against the passage of the increase.
Before trustees voted to call the election, Alderete asked them to form a committee of taxpayers, business owners, parents, and students to strategize about the district's deficit. She is troubled by what she perceives to be a lack of a plan for the funds that would be brought in by the tax hike.
"I don't believe that our educators don't deserve that money, but I want to make sure that there is a concrete plan," she said. "We should fix that up and then go out for something."
Alderete said she also is wary of how the current administration would handle the influx of funding. She has been critical of Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra during his time leading South San.
Prior to the trustees' vote to hold the election, Saavedra announced his retirement, effective at the end of his contract in March 2019. A search for Saavedra's successor has begun, meaning a new superintendent will likely be in place before the end of the school year to act as steward of the funds.
"Why don't they wait until the new superintendent gets here? What's the rush?" Alderete said.
That question doesn't make sense to Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) who has blockwalked the district, asking his constituents to support the tax rate increase. Saldaña, like many other advocates for the tax increase, believes more funding is urgently needed and represents a vote of confidence in the district.
"If you believe that South San needs money tomorrow, then you must also believe that South San needs money today," Saldaña said.
Without the rate increase, South San would have to cut additional jobs and programs to make up for its $6.4 million budget deficit, district officials say.
Ryan Garcia, campaign manager for the Save South San political action committee, which supports passage of the tax rate increase, said the money is needed now and has been needed for years. Garcia attended John Jay High School in Northside ISD, but said that throughout his childhood, he would visit cousins who went to South San schools and noticed a disparity between the districts.
Because South San contains properties of lower taxable value than a district like Northside, even having the same tax rate means South San gets less revenue. Garcia said while he understands that property taxes are already a burden, residents are willing to sacrifice for a better education system.
"This is an investment in education, an investment in our schools," Garcia said. "I have heard a lot of parents who have kids in the district who think they can miss $8 from their personal budget if their kids are going to have smaller class [sizes] and teachers are going to be better."
The district projects an tax rate increase of 13 cents would mean the difference in a monthly tax bill of $8.13 for a homeowner with a home valued at $100,000 and $2.71 for resident who owns a home valued at $50,000.
When Garcia encounters opponents of the tax rate increase, he said he often has to fight against a negative perception of the district, reflective of the turmoil that gripped the board and caused the state to appoint a conservator to oversee the district in February 2016.
In January, the Texas Education Agency removed the conservator, indicating its confidence in the district. This confidence is something Garcia and Saldaña want to communicate to voters.
"I’ve seen the most positive changes and transformation in our school board over the last two or three years," Saldaña said. "I think the [tax rate increase] is also a referendum on the confidence our community has in our school district. If this fails, I believe this sends a message that this is a community that has lost all confidence in South San."
Saldaña said this vote is especially important as South San searches for a new superintendent. Without a display of community support in the form of approving the tax increase, he said, it will likely be harder to attract "transformational leaders" to South San.
No one on either side of the issue expects a high voter turnout for the election. Even though voting has been open since July 30 at two locations, the election falls outside the regular cycle of elections and comes shortly after a special election for state Senate District 19.