Costly Upgrades

The November 2 public meeting at South San Antonio High School felt like a victory rally
The November 2 public meeting at South San Antonio High School felt like a victory rally. Hundreds of people gathered in the school’s auditorium to hear rousing speeches and a spirited performance by the high-school’s band. But there was an undercurrent of desperation beneath the celebratory surface.

School administrators warned parents that the district — which includes 18 schools — desperately needed them to approve a bond proposal to cover district-wide disability-compliance renovations required by the federal government, as well as construction of new maintenance, transportation, and food-services facilities.

Band booster Herman Sanchez told the crowd that band competitors from other schools come to South San High School for contests and leave “thinking the facilities are a ghetto.” Sanchez, and several parents who spoke at the meeting, insisted that their children deserve better than the decrepit surroundings to which they’ve become accustomed.

Five days after the meeting, district voters disregarded their pleas and rejected the South San bond proposal. The ballot-box failure leaves South San in the unenviable position of having to comply with costly Americans with Disabilities Act regulations without the necessary funding.

“There was a sense of disappointment about what happened,” says Ed Suarez, public-information officer for South San ISD. “We felt like the message got out, but perhaps it didn’t resonate.”

South San has an embarrassing history of playing politics with school issues. Early this year, without any public discussion, the district’s board of trustees changed the name of Royalgate Elementary to Frank Madla Elementary, only two months before Madla, a longtime state senator, faced a primary election. Shortly before the board made its decision, Madla had paid Edgar Lopez, brother of SSAISD board president Manuel Lopez, $3,000 for “campaign coordination.”

Previously, the South San board raised eyebrows when it resisted calls for the removal of a likeness of former Councilman Raul Prado from a school mural, despite the fact that Prado had been convicted on corruption charges that included the acceptance of bribes in exchange for a South San engineering contract. Prado’s wife Connie, a South San school-board trustee, adamantly opposed the latest bond proposal, and district officials privately cite her as a major cause of the bond’s election-day defeat.

District officials made a persuasive case for the bond, which resulted from a March audit by the Office of Civil Rights. The audit concluded that several South San facilities do not comply with American with Disabilities Act regulations. School administrators argued that voter approval of the bond proposal would allow the district to apply for state aid under the Existing Debt Allotment Program.

Voters were told that the state would provide approximately 70 percent of the $37.2-million bond, with taxpayers shouldering only an $11-million burden. The cost for the average homeowner in the district, based on South San financial projections, was less than $40 a year ($3.29 a month). Although the EDA money was not yet guaranteed, administrators told constituents that rejecting the bond proposal would be the equivalent of leaving $26 million on the table.

With little disagreement that the district’s schools badly need upgrading, and with the possibility of massive supplemental help from the state, it’s easy to wonder what went wrong on election day.

District officials point to a vociferous opposition campaign from the Committee for Fairness in Our Schools, a group backed by Connie Prado. Opposition literature sent to the west part of the district complained that South San High School would receive $9.1 million in renovation funding while the high school’s west campus would receive less than $600,000, and mailouts to the east argued the opposite: that the west side of the district would benefit excessively.

Although these arguments were contradictory, the suggestion that bond money would be distributed disproportionately stuck with many voters, and an early-voting campaign organized by the Committee for Fairness left bond proponents in a bleak position.

“We have to do approximately $5.5 million of ADA compliance,” Suarez says. “There’s also a $600,000 road that we have to build behind the new middle school. That’s our responsibility. So we’re looking at a $6-million tab that we have to figure out how to take care of.

“Right now, the only thing I can say is there are going to be some hard choices that the board of trustees and the superintendent are going to have to make. I would think that there’s going to be some painful decisions that will have to be made in terms of belt tightening. It’s very unfortunate.”