Thursday, November 17, 2016

State Could Assume Control of Yet Another Scandal-Prone San Antonio School District

Posted By on Thu, Nov 17, 2016 at 8:15 AM

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A Texas Education Agency investigation released this week concludes that Southside ISD's elected leaders have mismanaged the district to such an extent that a slate of state-appointed managers should replace them to get things back on track.

In its report, the TEA investigators say they began looking into the district after receiving several complaints alleging "a systemic breakdown" of the board's ability to govern and oversee the district's schools and finances. The TEA announced its investigation into Southside this past May just days before superintendent Mark Eads took the helm, making him the sixth person to lead the troubled district in just three years.

In its report calling for a state takeover, the TEA investigators say that Southside trustees have not only failed to govern or appropriately manage the district's finances, but that some trustees have tried to benefit themselves or others close to them by guiding hiring decisions and ordering around school district employees in violation of state education code.

"Installing a board of managers is a pretty serious step," TEA spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson told the Current. "You are setting aside the elected board of trustees. It is a recommendation they do not make lightly."

Southside is actually the second San Antonio school district this year that state officials have deemed to be so hopelessly mismanaged that it should be overtaken by a state-appointed board. A board of managers assumed control of Edgewood ISD earlier this year after the district's elected leaders failed to make basic decisions needed to actually run the district, like the hiring of a superintendent and some new principals. Edgewood's state-appointed managers finally hired a new superintendent just last week, calling it a "new day" for the district.

Also this year, TEA took the slightly-less-serious step of appointing a conservator to oversee South San ISD's operations. In her monthly reports to state officials, that conservator has continued to report gridlock, infighting, and financial mismanagement coming from the board. If things don't turn around, the TEA could very well recommend that the state take over a third Bexar County school districts.

The TEA's six month-long investigation into Southside, meanwhile, found trustees trying to benefit themselves or those close to them by wielding their positions on the board. The allegations of trustee hubris range from the ridiculous (that one tried to sidestep basic school visitation rules and, in front of students, "irately" yelled at staff who asked him to comply) to the far more serious (that one tried to pressure district staff into giving his common-law wife a raise). The investigators also concluded that one former trustee, Tony Luna, who is now the district's executive director of operations, approved nearly $100,000 of construction work on a high school football stadium without any bids or even a written contract. The TEA says they've forwarded that part of their investigation to law enforcement officials for possible criminal investigation.

The TEA investigators say they interviewed six out of the district's seven trustees (one wouldn't show up for questioning), and that they all said dissolving the board was probably the only way to move forward due to "significant distrust, in-fighting, and alliances amongst the Trustees." TEA has also recommended lowering Southside's accreditation status based on its findings.

A response from the district Wednesday insists that Southside has turned things around since superintendent Eads came on board. "Much of what was pointed out in the report has been addressed, audited and revamped to meet compliance and other best practices," the district said in a statement. Eads meanwhile urged the TEA not to lower the district's accreditation status for problems that he says new leadership is now in the process of fixing.

"The teachers and staff have continued to work over the past years to educate students and provide opportunities for the students served by SISD," Eads said in a statement. "Lowering the accreditation status of the school district would have an adverse impact when we have addressed the issues of concern and have made major adjustments in systems and procedures."

Culbertson with TEA said Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath will ultimately decide in the coming weeks whether to agree with the investigators recommendation and implement yet another state takeover of a San Antonio school district.

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