Scott Ball / Rivard Report
The South San Antonio Independent School District board voted 4-3 Thursday to develop a plan by mid-February to reopen three shuttered campuses in time for the 2019-2020 school year.
The vote came one day after the board passed a non-binding resolution to reopen the schools and concluded a lengthy, oft-heated workshop in which trustees were expected to discuss concrete steps to revive Kazen Middle, Athens Elementary, and West Campus High School.
Instead, district staff presented current enrollment trends and maintenance and academic needs at South San’s existing campuses, frustrating several trustees and many of the 20-plus residents in attendance.
“What I’m asking for is a breakdown of the three campuses that we’re looking to repurpose,” board President Connie Prado said. “That’s why we’re here, to discuss the repurposing of these campuses.”
Board Vice President Gilbert Rodriguez’s successful motion directs Superintendent Alexandro Flores and his staff to craft an action plan, with budget and timeline, to reopen Athens and Kazen as regular schools using existing funds. It also calls for this year’s eighth-grade class at Shepard Middle School to move to a reopened West Campus, with the intent of adding a grade level until the Class of 2023 is realized.
Trustees are expected to call a special meeting the week of Feb. 11 to review the action plan.
The district closed West Campus, which currently hosts district administrative functions, in 2007 because of flood damage, and Athens and Kazen in 2017 due to declining enrollment. All three closures sparked controversy in the community.
Superintendent Flores repeatedly defended the staff’s presentation, saying trustees and community members would benefit from a broader perspective of South San’s enrollment trends and facility needs.
“As we consider the possibility of reopening the campuses … there’s an academic impact, a financial impact, a sustainability impact … tied to that,” he said.
“How do rooftops and the ceiling at Kindred [Elementary] have anything to do with Athens, Kazen, and West Campus?” Prado asked.
Some community members contended the teacher/student ratios provided in the district staff’s presentation were skewed and failed to accurately reflect overcrowded classrooms.
The closure of West Campus led to a densely populated South San High School where students can face bullying and other stressful issues, some residents said.
According to the presentation, South San’s enrollment dropped by 673 students districtwide between the 2016-2017 school year and this school year, representing $4.37 million in lost state revenue.
Board members dismissed the superintendent’s recommendation to conduct a full facilities assessment and feasibility study, establish a process for developing committees, and forming a timeline toward repurposing the schools, which he said could take anywhere from 12 to 18 months.
Prado said not reopening the three campuses – and soon – would further undercut the public’s trust in the district’s leadership and stewardship of taxpayer dollars and jeopardize the outcome of future bond and tax ratification elections.
South San voters last summer rejected a proposed property tax increase, which district officials said at the time was needed to reduce the impact of a projected deficit.
Acknowledging that Flores has only been superintendent for a few months, former school board member Karyn Tomlinson said reopening West Campus could help rebuild trust between the district and the community. Reopening all three campuses would help relieve overcrowding elsewhere in the district and correct what many residents saw as a mistake, she added.
“You don’t know the animosity, the heartbreak, the hard, hard feelings felt in this community over that whole mess,” Tomlinson said.
Prado said with new homes being built in the district, the time is right to reopen schools and demonstrate to parents that South San’s schools are right for their children.
“We can’t wait. If we miss opening this year, we’ll miss all the kids that are there, and the kids that we could bring back,” Prado added.
Prado and trustees Shirley Ibarra Peña and Homer Flores supported Rodriguez’s motion to expedite the reopenings. Trustees Elda Flores, Louis Ybarra Jr., and Mandy Martinez voted against the motion.
Elda Flores, Ybarra, and Martinez all said district staff needs more time to develop a full plan, budget, and timeline toward reopening the three campuses. They also expressed concern about whether the board was overstepping its authority, a claim Rodriguez dismissed by reading state laws applicable to public school boards.
Martinez said the district closed Athens, Kazen and West Campus in a rush – “and look what happened. We’re paying the consequences now.
“If we rush to reopen them, I don’t want that to happen again,” she added. “We’re going to pay the consequences again. Our kids deserve a solid plan.”