Wednesday, July 20, 2016

South San Board Member Says Legal Cost of Fighting State Reforms Is "Raping the District"

Posted By on Wed, Jul 20, 2016 at 9:35 AM

click to enlarge At a specially called South San Antonio Independent School District board meeting Monday night trustees Helen Madla and Trinidad T. Mata walked out in frustration. - YOUTUBE
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  • At a specially called South San Antonio Independent School District board meeting Monday night trustees Helen Madla and Trinidad T. Mata walked out in frustration.
Two members of the South San Antonio ISD school board walked out of a meeting Monday night over the mounting legal costs of board president Connie Prado's decision to fight state-ordered reforms to the perennially troubled district.

Bristling at legal costs Prado asked the board to approve at a special meeting on Monday, one board member said the law firm Prado hired to fight the Texas Education Agency is "raping the district." 

Board members Helen Malda and Trinidad T. Mata walked out of Monday's meeting after Prado made a motion calling for lawyer Kevin O'Hanlon to draft yet another letter to refute yet another damning report by Judy Castleberry, who was appointed by the TEA in February to oversee the board and report back to state education officials. The situation in South San is bad enough to where the TEA has asked for monthly reports rather than standard quarterly updates from Castleberry. 

During Monday's meeting, Mata said while O'Hanlon, who the district hired as special legal counsel for TEA matters last November, has already drafted several letters criticizing Castleberry's monthly reports to the TEA, it's not clear what the ultimate cost will be. "We haven't received billing from the O'Hanlon firm for six weeks," Mata said, minutes before walking out. "So in that process, the chair has asked for about three letters, and it might be a fourth one today. At $10,000 a whack, they're raping the district."  

So far, O'Hanlon hasn't billed the district for two other rebuttal letters sent to the TEA that refute Castleberry's monthly reports. And South San ISD is currently paying two law firms to conduct district work, which Castleberry has continually criticized as a waste of money in her reports. Castleberry's last report also noted that the district's draft budget for next year has a deficit of nearly $1 million.

After Mata and Madla left the meeting, the rest of the board unanimously approved the agenda item directing O'Hanlon to send another letter. The cost of the four letters could end up being around $40,000. The TEA has not answered or responded to a single one. Monday's meeting was scheduled to be a team-building exercise between a divisive board and superintendent Dr. Abelardo Saavedra — the district's fifth superintendent in five years.

Saavedra came out of retirement in 2014 to try and turn the district around. But by December 2015, he was so frustrated with the district's board of trustees, which included Prado, who was elected in 2014 and subsequently chosen as board president, that he filed a complaint with the TEA requesting intervention. The TEA appointed Castleberry to oversee finances and governance of the district in February. Prado recently told the San Antonio Current that Castleberry's reports aren't accurate and her relationship with Saavedra is fine. 

South San ISD is one of two districts with conservators in the entire state. The other is Edgewood ISD, which is also in San Antonio. If TEA Commissioner Mike Morath doesn't see progress in how the board responds to Castleberry's findings, he could remove them and appoint a board of managers to oversee district business.



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