South San Superintendent Announces Retirement; Tax Rate Increase Not Resolved

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South San Antonio Independent School District Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

South San Antonio Independent School District Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra announced his intent to retire at the end of his contract in March 2019.

Wednesday night's South San Antonio Independent School District board meeting brought the promise of significant change for the district of 8,600 students.

After Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra announced his intent to retire at the end of his contract in March 2019, the board of trustees voted to call a tax rate increase election to help close a $6.4 million budget deficit.

On Thursday, however, the district announced that the board would need to vote again on the measure, because Wednesday night's 4-2 decision to increase the tax rate did not comply with a state law that requires 60 percent of all trustees to approve before calling an election. Trustee Elda Flores was absent from the meeting.

"I have encouraged the school board to start their search for my successor as quickly as possible," Saavedra said. "Now is the time for a new leader to take South San to new heights...This is not a farewell, we still have nine months of work to do together."

In his little more than four years with South San, Saavedra provided stability to a district that saw turnover in the its chief role for a number of years. Saavedra came out of retirement for the South San superintendent job in March 2014 after serving as interim superintendent for three months. At the time, he was the fifth person to run the district in less than three years.

His education career spans more than four decades and has included time as the superintendent of Corpus Christi and Houston ISDs.

Saavedra, whose contract runs through March 19, 2019, oversaw the district during state intervention, when the Texas Education Agency appointed a state conservator to oversee financial management and governance.

The TEA appointed the conservator, Judy Castleberry, in February 2016. Two years later, the State determined governance had improved sufficiently and removed her, with Castleberry telling trustees they made "significant progress" during her time with the district.

Following Saavedra's retirement announcement, the board approved calling for an election to add 13 cents to the district's existing property tax rate of $1.45, which if approved by voters on Aug. 14, would bring the total rate up to $1.58 per $100 of property valuation. However, the day after the tax rate vote, the district announced the the trustees' vote was null and void.

The state requires at least a 60 percent majority of all sitting trustees to call for a tax rate increase, which means that on a seven-member board at least five trustees must vote to approve the decision.

Trustee Connie Prado, who voted against the tax rate increase, questioned how many trustees were needed to approve an increase, and the district's attorney was uncertain about the requirement Wednesday night. Following the vote to increase the tax rate, Prado and trustee Leticia Guerra voted in favor of calling an election. The district said both votes are null and void.

South San officials said the district would call another meeting soon to revisit the increase.

"We sincerely apologize to the community for this oversight," Saavedra said. "We will do right by our community as the need remains and bring this back for a vote."

If approved by five trustees and later by voters, added revenue of about $6.3 million would be available to the district in the next fiscal year.

The decision to approve the tax rate increase came in a 4-2 vote with trustees Connie Prado and Leticia Guerra voting against the increase, but in favor of calling the election.

Most of the surrounding districts with similar property values, including San Antonio, Harlandale, Somerset, Southwest, Southside, and Edgewood ISDs, have already upped their tax rates, according to South San Chief Financial Officer JC Zamora.

The extra revenue would contribute to closing a $6.4 million budget deficit South San ISD officials blame mainly on declining enrollment. Saavedra previously pointed to new charter-school campuses and poor housing options in his district as reasons for declining student enrollment.

District officials say if they can offer more choices to students – through new middle school academies set to open in the fall – and better housing options to families – which the board has asked for through investments from the City of San Antonio's housing bond – the district will lure students back to South San. However, until then, district officials said they have to adapt to their current financial situation.

Trustees have held budget workshops this spring that proposed various ways to cut from the overall budget. South San asked campus administrators to identify cuts that satisfy a certain dollar amount based on student enrollment loss.

At the last meeting in mid-May, trustees discussed the potential loss of additional staff members. Saavedra told reporters at Wednesday's meeting that even with a tax rate increase, staff and budget cuts to the tune of $2.9 million would have to be made to adjust to a 14 percent loss in student enrollment.

Staff cuts would include approximately 20 non-teaching positions including police officers not assigned to specific campuses and several administrators, and 22 teachers. The teaching positions would be cut by attrition, he said.

With 500 fewer students expected for next year, Saavedra said doing the math with a 25-to-one student-to-teacher ratio indicates 20 teaching positions can be cut.

"We have to downsize, we have to run an efficient system," he said.

Saavedra and trustees agreed at an earlier budget workshop that they could also pull $1 million from the district's fund balance, similar to a savings account, to mitigate the budget gap. The fund balance currently contains about $20 million. Zamora said if the tax rate increase is approved, the district might still pull from the fund balance, but not to cover a deficit. The district CFO said money from the fund balance could help upgrade facilities or transportation needs.

Trustees must approve a new budget by Aug. 31.

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