South San Antonio ISD’s checkered past of board mismanagement serves as a cautionary tale to candidates vying for three spots on the school board for the Harlandale Independent School District.
Up until January 2018, South San ISD operated for nearly two years under a state-appointed conservator, who has the authority to direct or override decisions made by the board or superintendent. Harlandale school board candidates don’t want that to happen to their district, which is at the center of an almost two-year special accreditation investigation by the Texas Education Agency.
The TEA’s investigation is ongoing, said agency spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson, and there is no date for its conclusion. The agency does not comment on ongoing investigations, she said.
According to the Texas Education Code, the education commissioner can appoint a board of managers, monitor, or conservator in the event that a school district or charter school has failed to satisfy accreditation standards, financial accountability standards, academic performance standards, or other deficiencies.
In 2016, Edgewood and Southside ISDs both had state takeovers of their boards following investigations similar to Harlandale’s. The decision for a state takeover rests with Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath.
As for Harlandale ISD’s investigation, the TEA’s preliminary report recommended removing its elected board of trustees and replacing it with a state-appointed board of managers, as reported by the San Antonio Express-News. The state education agency has not publicly released its report, but according to a copy obtained by the newspaper, it called Harlandale’s governance “dysfunctional,” criticized the district’s financial practices, recommended lowering its accreditation, and said some current and past board members could face criminal charges regarding contracts and open meetings law violations.
Voters in the southside school district will have the opportunity to cast ballots for names both old and new to serve on the board.
Of the eight candidates for three trustee spots, half of them are running for political office for the first time. The other half are either incumbents or former board members, including a 13-year former board member and a past board president who is hoping to regain his seat from the man who ousted him.
Harlandale ISD currently operates as a board of trustees elected from seven single-member districts. Trustees serve four-year unpaid terms.
Attempts were made to contact all the candidates by the phone numbers and e-mails listed on their candidate filing forms. Some candidates did not return messages, texts, or e-mails seeking comment.
Trustee Jesus Tejeda is vacating his seat, leaving the spot up for grabs between newcomer Elaine Anaya-Ortiz, 54, and former trustee and state legislator Tomas Uresti, 58.
An administrative support specialist for a federal law enforcement agency, Anaya-Ortiz describes herself as a listener, a hard worker, and not a micromanager. She has three sons that have all gone through Harlandale ISD schools, with the youngest graduating from McCollum High School in May.
It was the threat of a state takeover that motivated the long-time Harlandale ISD resident to run for the school board, making it her first run for office. If elected, she wants to help steer the district back in the right direction with an elected board of trustees versus a TEA appointed one.
“We should be afforded an opportunity to address whatever issues the TEA wants us to address,” Anaya-Ortiz said in a phone interview.
Her opponent Tomas Uresti served 13 years on the Harlandale ISD board and one term in the Texas House of Representatives. In March 2018, he lost his re-election bid in the Democratic primary on the heels of the conviction of his brother, former State Sen. Carlos Uresti, on 11 felony charges, including money laundering and fraud.
Tomas Uresti did not return phone calls, texts, or e-mails seeking comment on his run to reclaim his seat on the Harlandale ISD school board.
In an interview with the San Antonio Express-News published in early April, Tomas Uresti maintained that he was one of the good guys during the period he served on the board, the same timeframe that some of the problems detailed by TEA investigators took place. He told the Express-News that he knows more than he can publicly talk about because the entire report came across his desk when he was a legislator.
“I think this race will have the biggest bearing on TEA’s decision,” Uresti told the newspaper. “If TEA sees I’m on the board, hopefully that will keep them from dismantling the board and taking away the accreditation of the district.”
For her part, Anaya-Ortiz acknowledged that she and her opponent cannot agree on much, except that her name was not in the TEA’s report. For that reason, she hopes the school board will have some new blood to correct the district’s course.
“There’s no way bringing back any of the old can be good for the district,” she said.
Three newcomers are running to fill the Place 6 vacancy, which has sat empty since trustee Carlos Quezada resigned after being elected judge of the 289th Judicial District, which handles juvenile cases in Bexar County.
The three contestants for Place 6 include Jesse Diaz, 47, a technology trainer and talent manager leader for Alamo Colleges; Lorenzo Gonzalez, 31, an insurance broker; and Elizabeth Limon, 58, a Harlandale ISD substitute teacher who unsuccessfully ran for the board in 2015.
Diaz touts his professional experience in education, particularly compliance and ethics training, as strong assets that he would bring to the board table. The current board has not always operated in a transparent manner, he said.
“To be blunt, that seems to be an ongoing issue that seems to be bubbling up to the surface,” Diaz said in a phone interview.
If elected, Diaz will work to put students first, bring a strong code of ethics, and create synergies with Alamo Colleges and other community partners to strengthen the academic environment and build pride in Harlandale ISD, he said.
The ongoing TEA investigation prompted Diaz to file for his first political race, and he hopes that his presence on the board might prevent a TEA takeover, unlike what happened in South San ISD, he said.
“If I do win a seat on the board, with my experience and knowledge and having worked with the state of Texas on other initiatives, they [the TEA] will see that favorably and as a signal for change,” Diaz said.
The other candidates, Gonzalez and Limon, did not return several messages and texts seeking comment.
An alum of Harlandale ISD and Texas A&M—San Antonio, Gonzalez sports a man-bun and has also served on the executive board of Bexar County Young Democrats. He, too, appears motivated to run for school board to prevent a TEA takeover.
“It is my belief that these Austin elitists have traditionally forgotten about or looked down on districts like Harlandale, and now they’re trying to tell us that we’re not good enough to run our own district,” Gonzalez said in a speech posted on his election Facebook page.
In a candidate questionnaire posted by WOAI-TV, News 4 San Antonio, Limon wrote that she has been engaged in school district matters by attending monthly school board meetings for the past 10 years. She is familiar with the important issues, such as teacher pay and benefits, oversight, and bond and building committees, she wrote.
Limon listed public trust, transparency, accountability, and culture as the biggest challenges facing the district.
“Our school leaders play an important role by driving the values of behaviors and taking actions to create change on how they must work together with teachers and families,” Limon wrote in her questionnaire. “We need to find improvements and help our students with the innovations to motivate them so that they can succeed.”
In a 3-way race for Place 7, former board trustee Jesse “Jay” Alaniz, 65, is hoping to reclaim his spot on the board from Ricardo Moreno, 33, who unseated him in 2015. Both men served during the period of time covered in the TEA investigation, according to the San Antonio Express-News.
Newcomer Lee Martinez, Jr., (24) a student at Texas A&M—San Antonio and a 911 call taker for the San Antonio Police Department, has no ties to any of the allegations in TEA’s findings.
Retired business owner and former board president, Alaniz touts his financial acumen, relationships with local and state-level elected officials, and his teamwork approach as reasons that Harlandale ISD voters should put him back on the board.
The current board, Alaniz said, has been in-fighting, failing to serve as diligent stewards of the district’s finances, and micromanaging Superintendent Rey Madrigal.
“How can you tell me that board members can tell a superintendent how to do his job?” Alaniz said in a phone interview. “That is impossible.”
The effect has stifled morale in the southside school district with deep ties to the San Antonio missions.
“I don’t know what has happened the last four years,” Alaniz said. “But people are very discouraged.”
Citing the potential TEA takeover as a major factor in his decision to run, Alaniz said he would seek open dialogue with the TEA and work to address the ageny’s concerns and findings if elected.
“My roots are in Harlandale,” Alaniz said. “I love my children. I love my district, and I just hate for it to go down the tubes.”
The other candidates for Place 7, Martinez and Moreno, did not return phone calls and texts seeking comment.
The incumbent, Moreno, has served on the board for four years, the time period that TEA has been investigating potential wrongdoings. Moreno has been a middle school history teacher for eight years—five previously in South San ISD and presently in Northside ISD.
In a candidate questionnaire posted by WOAI-TV, News 4 San Antonio, Moreno cites student enrollment, school finance, and the TEA investigation as some of the biggest challenges facing Harlandale ISD. Moreno claims most of the findings fell in the time period of 2006–2015, before he got onto the board.
“Being that a majority of items I have had to address have been prior to my tenure on the board, to which I say we have continued to place a focus on student outcomes and achievements,” Moreno said.
A former substitute teacher and math tutor in Harlandale ISD, Martinez is a 2014 graduate of Harlandale High School and Palo Alto College. He believes his lack of experience on the school board is his strongest selling point to voters.
“The biggest challenge facing the district is the TEA investigation that is ongoing throughout the district on current and former board members,” Martinez wrote in his candidate questionnaire posted by WOAI-TV. “The investigation has left the district in a situation where the community has lost trust and are hoping for a positive outcome of this election. I have no ties within it, and I would reach out to the community and invite them to a sit-down open meeting and hearing from them direct on situations that would bring the trust back to the district.”
- “SAISD Trustee Elections: Stay the Course or Put on the Brakes?,” Bridie Chaudoir, San Antonio Charter Moms, April 24, 2019
- “San Antonio Election Guide 2019: Candidate Profiles,” Maria Gardner, News 4 San Antonio, April 22, 2019
- “Election dominated by possible takeover of San Antonio’s Harlandale ISD,” Krista Torralva, San Antonio Express-News, April 4, 2019