SAISD Trustee Elections: Stay the Course or Put on the Brakes?

San Antonio ISD Board of Trustees candidate forum hosted by Teach for America San Antonio | San Antonio Charter Moms

With a crowded field for three trustee seats, the San Antonio ISD school board elections on May 4 are poised to be a referendum on recent efforts to turn around the struggling district—either to stay the course with non-traditional strategies or to put on the brakes.

Three of the school board’s seven single-member districts are on the May ballot with contested races:

  • District 2, which includes the East Side and is home to Sam Houston High School;
  • District 5, on the city’s West Side and home to Lanier High School;
  • District 6, which takes in parts of Olmos Park and is home to Edison High School.

Trustees serve the unpaid positions for four-year terms. Early voting began on April 22.

Recent board decisions over the past few years have pitted reformers intent on improving SAISD’s low-performing schools against those—including some vocal teachers and support personnel—desiring to maintain a more traditional style of school district management.

The camps have been divided over decisions ranging from creating an in-district charter managed by an out-of-state operator at the failing Stewart Elementary School to the most recent decision in March 2019 of turning day-to-day operations at 18 campuses to five external organizations. At the March 25 school board meeting, SAISD communications officer Leslie Price said via e-mail that trustees approved the following groups to manage these campuses:

  • Young Women’s Preparatory Network will manage the in-district charter Young Women’s Leadership Academy and Young Women’s Leadership Academy—Primary at Page (an in-district charter to open in August 2019);
  • Michigan-based HighScope Educational Research Foundation will manage Carroll Early Childhood Education Center and Tynan Early Childhood Education Center;
  • Texas Coalition of International Studies, part of Texas International Baccalaureate Schools, will manage Burbank High School, Jefferson High School, Harris Middle School, Woodlawn Academy—all current IB World Schools—as well as Briscoe Elementary, Fenwick Academy, Huppertz Elementary, and Woodlawn Hills Elementary—all IB candidate schools;
  • School Innovation Collaborative, with support of Rice University, will manage Bowden Academy, Gates Elementary, and Lamar Elementary;
  • The CAST Network, created by H-E-B, will manage the in-district charters CAST Tech High School and Advanced Learning Academy, as well as CAST Med High school, an in-district charter opening in August 2019.

Under these new partnership agreements, the campuses remain SAISD schools, with the same principals and teachers, who are employed by SAISD, Price said.

“With the ongoing collaboration and counsel of a partner with a particular expertise, these schools have an exciting opportunity to really make an impact on student learning,” Price wrote in an e-mail. “And, if approved by TEA [Texas Education Agency], each campus would receive significant funding that will help ensure a sustainable program over the long term.”

Skeptics, however, are voicing concern that the non-profit managers will not be accountable to SAISD students, parents, and residents. This latest board vote continues to fuel divisions that could influence voters and affect the make-up of the new school board.

Whoever is elected to the three single-member positions will make decisions affecting Bexar County’s third largest school district, with just under 50,000 students in an area encompassing 79 square miles. Approximately 90 percent of SAISD students qualify as economically disadvantaged.

In the three SAISD races, challengers are seeking to unseat two incumbents—District 6 trustee Christina Martinez and District 5 trustee and board president Patti Radle. Each trustee faces at least one challenger endorsed by the SAISD union, the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel.

District 5

Board president and District 5 trustee Radle is facing newcomer Janell Rubio for the seat that Radle has held for eight years.

San Antonio ISD Board of Trustees candidate forum hosted by Teach for America San Antonio: Patti Radle | San Antonio Charter Moms

Radle, 71, runs a non-profit on the West Side and is a retired teacher, including 12 years in SAISD. She regularly visits campuses and listens to constituents’ concerns. She also represented the West Side for two terms on City Council.

Rubio is a parent to three teenagers who attend SAISD schools, and she has been endorsed by the SAISD union. In her election filing, Rubio, 38, lists her occupation as unemployed. At two candidate forums—one in March sponsored by the equity in education group SA Rise and another sponsored on April 11 by Teach For America—Rubio did not attend.

In a prepared statement read at the April 11 candidate forum, Rubio stated that the school district and the board are making decisions without any input from parents. She cited two campuses in District 5 that have lost their bilingual program.

In a candidate-prepared Q&A posted on the Alliance’s web site, Rubio states that she opposes SAISD’s “choice schools,” which admit in-district and out-of-district students to magnet schools through a lottery. Rubio also opposes public school districts partnering with private-run charter schools.

“We as a community should look at ways to keep public schools public and not give them away to corporations,” Rubio wrote in the Alliance questionnaire.

In SAISD’s new partnership management agreements for its 18 campuses, none of the five outside organizations is a corporation.

Rubio is challenging District 5 trustee and board president Radle, who attended both candidate forums in March and in April. At the latter, Radle said she has witnessed SAISD’s big strides in academic improvements since the board hired Superintendent Pedro Martinez in 2015.

“What he is doing is carrying out our vision,” Radle said.

Radle cited as an example that, a few years ago, 35,000 SAISD students attended schools with the state rating IR, or “Improvement Required.” Now, that number has shrunk to 8,000 students, she said.

“Change is difficult,” Radle said. “But we are a board that is willing to take risks—what can we do more in a better way?”

Radle praised Martinez’s passion for education and the progressive strategies that he has implemented to stave off SAISD’s declining enrollment while bolstering academics and making the tough call to balance a deficit budget with job cuts.

But Radle acknowledged that all of this has come at the price of heightened anxiety and tension, and perhaps the board should challenge the pace of progress. In the meantime, the misinformation and the acrimony should end, she said.

“What are we doing when we keep in the realm of arguing?” Radle said at the April candidate forum. “I don’t want to battle the union. I want to battle mediocrity and low expectations.”

District 6

In District 6, Christina Martinez faces two challengers to keep the seat that she was appointed to fill in 2017 after former trustee Olga Hernandez resigned following an indictment on a federal fraud charge. A jury later acquitted Hernandez.

San Antonio ISD Board of Trustees candidate forum hosted by Teach for America San Antonio: Christina Martinez | San Antonio Charter Moms

Looking to unseat Martinez are Chris Castro, 41, an assistant principal at Nimitz Middle School in North East ISD and former principal at three SAISD campuses, and Eduardo Torres, 19, a student at University of Texas at San Antonio.

Martinez, 39, works as the vice president for external relations at Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Texas. She has the same last name as the SAISD superintendent, but she is not related to him.

With three children in SAISD schools, Martinez said at the April 11 candidate forum that she brings to the board table the perspective of a busy, working parent.

Martinez supports partnering with external organizations to manage schools so long as they are held to the same academic standards. SAISD must use innovative and non-traditional strategies to attract families who want high-quality education options and to stymie further enrollment declines, she said.

“We need to stop creating a world where we vilify parents who send their children to charter schools,” Martinez said at the March candidate forum at Tafolla Middle School.

Martinez wants to continue serving as District 6 trustee to oversee SAISD’s turnaround efforts and to ensure parents have access to high quality neighborhood schools as well as competitive non-traditional campuses.

“There is no handbook for a district that has been failing for years,” Martinez said at the April 11 candidate forum. “But we are doing it.”

Castro touts that his 18 years in education make him uniquely qualified to serve as District 6’s trustee. Although he is an educator and spent 15 years in SAISD, he did not receive the endorsement of the SAISD teacher’s union.
Castro’s platform calls for equitable distribution of resources between magnet schools and non-magnet neighborhood schools. Recently, the district seems to be neglecting neighborhood schools at the expense of focusing attention on magnets or schools that are open to SAISD and non-SAISD students, he said.

“Every neighborhood school should be able to meet the needs of every child,” Castro said at the March candidate forum at Tafolla Middle School. Castro did not attend the April candidate forum hosted by Teach for America due to a last minute family illness.

Like other challengers questioning SAISD’s rapid pace of turnaround efforts, the veteran educator criticized SAISD’s board of trustees for failing to listen to community members’ concerns.

“People are disengaged right now because they know they are talking to a bunch of puppets,” Castro stated at the March candidate forum hosted by SA Rise.

At the same forum, Castro questioned the transparency of the board’s vote to partner with the five outside organization to manage 18 SAISD campuses. If elected, Castro said that he will value transparency, ask hard questions, and not just be a yes man.

The third candidate for District 6 is Torres, a 2018 graduate of Edison High School and currently a student at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He works for FREED, a non-profit that he founded, and his family has more than 50 years of history living in District 6, he said. The father of a 1-year-old daughter, Torres credits his recent 12 consecutive years in SAISD classrooms as a strong qualification to serve as a trustee.

“Students have an equal voice of what goes on in those classrooms,” Torres said at the April 11 candidate forum.

Endorsed by the San Antonio Alliance for Teachers and Support Personnel, Torres platform falls in line with the union’s. He opposes school districts partnering with privately run charter schools. He also blames Martinez for the decline in SAISD’s student enrollment.

“I believe [the decline in enrollment] comes from the systematic displacement of native SAISD kids,” Torres wrote in his Q&A submitted to the Alliance. “I believe it is irresponsible, and I believe the Board should condemn [Martinez], and immediately cease these practices. I also believe that should the Superintendent fail to increase enrollment and make necessary changes, that the Board should go as far as to call for his removal. I believe that if charter operations are ceased and money is invested heavily into not only teachers but other essential personnel (counselors, etc), then existing schools will improve in quality.”

District 2

In District 2, trustee James Howard is not seeking re-election after 21 years representing the East Side. Four people are vying to replace him: Darrell Boyce, 40, a pastor; Chris Green, 36, a San Antonio ISD middle school English teacher; Alicia Perry, 39, a student success specialist; and Royce Sullivan, 42, a home health care companion.

San Antonio ISD Board of Trustees candidate forum hosted by Teach for America San Antonio: Chris Green | San Antonio Charter Moms

The candidates have different motivations to serve as District 2’s trustee.
Boyce believes that “effective change is to start with youth, and children deserve the best education possible,” he said at the April candidate forum.
As a District 2 resident for 30 years, Boyce helped fight to keep Sam Houston High School open when it was on the chopping block, he said.

Midway through the same forum, which was moderated by Robert Rivard of the non-profit online news source The Rivard Report, Boyce stood up and walked out of the meeting room without explanation.

In the union’s Q&A, Boyce stated that, while he opposes the state law providing a financial incentive for public school districts to partner with privately-run charters, he believes that “SAISD could benefit from some of the innovative ways charter/private schools are capturing our students,” he wrote. “I do not feel that school districts should partner with charter or private schools. Our schools can work if we are as innovative and creative as these charter and private institutions.”

An English teacher at Rhodes Middle School in SAISD, Green hopes to win a seat on the school board so he can be a decision maker for what happens in the classrooms, he said at the April candidate forum.

“I want to make an impact on thousands of students’ lives in addition to the hundreds I already have in my work,” Green said.

Green said he came to work for SAISD once he found out about their turnaround efforts, and he has seen the progress first-hand. Green is a Master Teacher, one of the SAISD teachers paid more to work with the most at-risk students. His campus formerly was rated IR—Improvement Required—but it no longer is. If elected to the SAISD board of trustees, Green will have to resign his teaching position in the district in accordance with state law.

While Green is a member of SAISD’s teachers’ union, he has not received their endorsement.

In the union’s Q&A, Green stated SAISD’s enrollment decline is the gravest issue facing the district. While Green supports the superintendent and his turnaround initiatives, he acknowledged that Pedro Martinez and other district leaders should do a better job of tuning into community members’ concerns.

On the issue of charters, Green believes SAISD should work with ones sharing similar values rather than watch students leave the district at an accelerated rate.

The SAISD’s teacher union has endorsed Alicia Perry, 39, who has six children enrolled in SAISD schools in District 2. A native of New Orleans who moved to San Antonio after Hurricane Katrina, Perry has volunteered as the PTA vice president at both Sam Houston and Gates Elementary. For Perry, the infiltration of charter schools and the merger of public and private are the most important issues facing SAISD, according to her answer in the SAISD teacher’s union Q&A.

“I believe with proper oversight of the budget and a stronger support for students and educators, we will be able to sustain and thrive without outsiders pushing us out,” she wrote.

Perry did not attend the candidate forum sponsored by SA Rise on March 30 or the one hosted by Teach for America on April 11.

Home health companion Royce Sullivan, 42, wants to restore a sense of community as District 2’s trustee. An SAISD alum, Sullivan also taught in the district for seven years. If elected, his mandate would be to listen to stakeholders’ concerns and vote according to their wishes.

“I have a responsibility to bring that voice back to the table,” he said at the April candidate forum.

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