Children lose when school board elections are uncontested because it takes away an opportunity for public discussion about what the districts need to do to improve. But election day—May 5, 2018—will come and go with no school board elections in either Alamo Heights ISD or North East ISD San Antonio. In every race, either the incumbents or the challengers have withdrawn. These have effectively become appointed school boards. There will be no opportunity for a dialogue or debate about the direction of policy, and voters will not have a chance to evaluate the candidates.
Here is a timeline of how these unopposed races unfolded. On February 20, the Express-News reported that there would be contested races for both the Alamo Heights ISD and North East ISD school boards. (This earlier post gives an overview of school boards in the San Antonio area.) Then, on February 23, the Express-News reported that several candidates for the North East ISD school board had withdrawn, leaving no contested elections. On February 26, the North East ISD board cancelled the election and certified the unopposed candidates. On February 27, I got an email from Brett Beach-Kimball that he had withdrawn from the race for the Alamo Heights ISD school board, and the Express-News reported it on March 1.
So, how did we go from having a whole bunch of school board elections in these districts to having none? Let’s look at the circumstances in Alamo Heights ISD and North East ISD.
No Contested School Board Elections in Alamo Heights ISD in 2018
- Place 5, held by Bonnie Giddens
- Place 6, held by Lisa Krenger
- Place 7, held by Perry Shankle
As of this writing, none of these elections are contested. Brett Beach-Kimball filed to run for Place 5, but withdrew his candidacy about two weeks later.
The benefit for the district of having uncontested races is that they don’t need to hold an election, which would cost tens of thousands of dollars. But at what cost? Voters will not have an opportunity to participate in the selection of the school board this year.
If everything were perfect in Alamo Heights ISD, that might not matter, but the district is in a time of transition. Last year, voters approved a bond that will make over many of the districts’ campuses; I wrote a commentary for Rivard Report about the imminent demolition of my neighborhood playground. Superintendent Kevin Brown is leaving this summer to become the executive director of TASA, so the district will soon undertake an important search for a new superintendent.
The achievement gap is a persistent problem at Alamo Heights ISD. As noted in the District Improvement Plan for 2016–17, testing revealed achievement gaps among “Hispanic, economically disdavantaged [sic], ELL TELPAS performance and ELL SpecEd TELPAS.” (p.6) The TEA’s 2017 school report cards for the district and its campuses (Cambridge, Woodridge, Junior School, and High School) show relatively high scores for Student Achievement and College Readiness, but relatively low scores for Student Progress and Closing Achievement Gaps. (Look under the hood: In a 2016 report on the methodology behind the A–F ratings, page C-6 explains that the Closing Achievement Gaps measure is based on test scores of economically disadvantaged students. At page D-5, see that Alamo Heights ISD campuses earned grades of D, C, F, F, and F in that domain.)
Beach-Kimball and I met to discuss why he ran for Alamo Heights ISD school board. He is a former teacher who taught in a traditional public school in Donna, Texas, and wants to serve his community in the field of education. He favors collaboration between public charter schools and traditional public schools, especially when charter schools can experiment and then share what works with traditional schools. He is concerned that Alamo Heights ISD is not doing enough to equitably educate all of its students, regardless of their family income, and to close the achievement gap within its own student body. Also, he wants to raise the level of college readiness among Alamo Heights High School graduates so that they are well equipped to succeed at selective colleges and universities.
Why did Beach-Kimball withdraw from the race for Alamo Heights ISD school board? Once he learned that Place 5 was not an open seat, but that Giddens was in fact running for reelection, he realized that the conversation would change. It would not be about issues like college readiness and educational equity, but would instead be about Beach-Kimball as a person and the choices his family has made. His children do not attend school in Alamo Heights ISD, and therefore he has not served on the boards of organizations like the campus PTOs or the Alamo Heights School Foundation. He is still concerned about issues like the superintendent search and figuring out how to engage all families well, and he is looking for other ways to be involved besides serving on the school board.
So, there will not be any contested elections for Alamo Heights ISD school board in 2018. That’s a shame, because an election is an opportunity to have a public conversation about how to improve the district. Without that opportunity, concerned citizens will need to look for other ways to stand up for the children who attend schools in the district.
No Contested School Board Elections in North East ISD in 2018
Three seats on the North East ISD school board are up for election in 2018:
- District 2, held by Edd White
- District 3, held by Joseph Treviño
- District 7, held by Brigitte Perkins
Incumbent White withdrew after Terri Williams filed for District 2. (Williams had just recently withdrawn from consideration for the board of CPS Energy.) Daniel McGinty and Lisa Talley filed for District 3 but withdrew, leaving Treviño unopposed. (Small world: I recently met Treviño at the Long-Range Plan meeting and saw him again at the District 121 candidate forum.) After Sandy Winkley filed for District 7, incumbent Perkins withdrew.
The end result of this game of musical chairs is that none of the three seats on the North East ISD school board has a contested election. The board seats are effectively being filled by appointment, and the voters have no say at all.
Michele Brown is a communications expert by trade, and is the proud parent of two students who attend schools in North East ISD. I asked her how she felt about the uncontested school board races, and I got an earful.
“We are engaged parents, we show up at parent night—in fact I was the ONLY parent that showed up to meet the physics teacher at my student’s high school. We volunteer on PTA. We know the principals at both of the schools where our kids are students and read their weekly emails. We email teachers and set up conferences when it is necessary. I follow NEISD on Facebook. I have their app. If you ask my kids, I spend too much time on the Parent Portal. I get the Superintendent’s messages via email. Thanks to the NEISD email blasts which include beautifully shot videos, I can tell you what show is at NESA . . . and my kids don’t even go there. I get a quarterly district newsletter mailed to my house. I have received multiple emails soliciting PTA board positions.
“I share all this to say not ONCE have I seen these communication channels used individually, or in a strategic communications effort, soliciting for school board positions, deadlines, or details. Not once did I see it communicated that two long-time board members (including the one in my district) decided to retire and all but one single candidate in each single member district backed out. Nor was the legal notice posted anywhere but the board side of the district site. Despite all the ways I receive communications from the district, I learned all of this from a story in the Express-News.”
Brown recently wrote to her school board member about the district’s policy on student protests. She got a reply back from the superintendent, but nothing from her school board member. (Similarly, my inquiries to Alamo Heights ISD board member Giddens were referred to the superintendent; I have yet to get a response.)
Brown observed that the district appears to be doing the legal minimum to post notices on its website. “But in a district which both the board and district goals include civic engagement, doing the absolute bare minimum is not exactly the path to community engagement and transparency.”
No Election, No Debate, No Conversation
On election day, May 5, voters in Alamo Heights ISD and North East ISD will have nothing to do. By winnowing each race to a single candidate for each board seat and cancelling the elections, the school boards of Alamo Height ISD and North East ISD have taken away the opportunity for voters to have a say in how their schools are governed. Debate has been closed before it even began, and constituents’ concerns are not being heard by board members who feel secure in their positions. In these districts, there is work to be done to close the achievement gap and to engage all families in the learning environment. Without a lively and sincere discussion about change, the children who attend schools there will suffer.
- “Alamo Heights ISD cancels election after candidate withdraws,” Silvia Foster-Frau, San Antonio Express-News, March 1, 2018
- “Dropped bids leave NEISD without contested board races”, Lauren Caruba, San Antonio Express-News, February 23, 2018
- “Incumbents draw challengers on Bexar County school boards,” Lauren Caruba and Alia Malik, San Antonio Express-News, February 20, 2018