Q & A with Rey Saldaña

San Antonio is about to come on hard times, given major budget cuts at a state and federal level. What programs do you think can be trimmed back? What should we not touch?

The current fiscal climate is a challenging one, whether it’s at the city, state or federal level. San Antonio is no exception, and our budget situation will require tough choices.  When making decisions about individual programs, we must base our evaluations on clear criteria for success and measurable goals, which will allow us to preserve as much of our current service levels while still making necessary cost reductions. This was accomplished with the Fiscal Year 2011 (FY11) budget, as the City reduced a projected $68 million deficit to $37 million by cutting $30 million from the budget, largely through excessive costs associated with certain programs. For instance, implementing the Computer Aided Dispatch System saved $700,000; $400,000 in savings resulted from reducing efficiencies in the illegal dumping abatement program; and savings were also realized through the phased reduction of administrative overhead with the San Antonio Education partnership. These savings are real and substantial, and they provide a blueprint for how we should critically examine all programs in the City’s budget.

While the City’s fiscal situation has improved, we still need to identify areas of our budget that can be made more efficient without sacrificing our core services (public safety, public infrastructure, and neighborhood services). San Antonio must avoid the solutions proposed in cities such as San Diego, Phoenix, and San Jose to balance the budget by sacrificing public safety and core services. Closing our budget gap should not mean reneging on our promise to provide a high quality of life for our residents and our city employees. Along these lines, it is important to understand that the bulk of our reductions will come in the form of recommendations about our delegate agencies, which may see a reduction in funding. While going into specifics at this point in time is premature, it’s important to establish a system whereby the Council can make specific recommendations about cuts to specific programs. If we take an across-the-board approach, we risk eliminating high-performing and cost-efficient programs, ultimately costing the city more money in the long-term.

Are there programs you plan to champion to ease the impact of those outside funding cuts on our community? Are you committed to continuing the SA2020 process?
SA2020 has been an impressive display of civic activity across San Antonio. It’s shown us all that San Antonio’s residents are active and engaged, and it is important that we continue the process and make progress on some of our targets. If elected to the Council, I will push to turn the conversations that have taken place during SA2020, and the goals that emerged from those conversations, into actual progress that we can see across the city. It would be a waste of our residents’ time and energy if the only outcome of SA2020 is another document collecting dust on a bookshelf. 

For instance, SA2020’s goals for education are to improve kindergarten and college readiness. Collectively these two goals represent our entire educational mission: to place our children on an early path to success, and to support them along that path until they are fully prepared to succeed as college students. Particularly in this difficult fiscal climate, it’s important that we do not sacrifice our children’s future – our city’s future – for short-term fiscal gain. With the state budget cuts for education, the City needs to continue to support quality after-school and summer programs for children to make sure that they have every opportunity to succeed.

What is your position on the city’s investment in two proposed nuclear reactors at the South Texas Project? CPS Energy plans for early retirement of the Deeley coal plant? Renewable energy development?

When considering nuclear energy, safety is always the primary concern, and this is particularly true in light of recent events around the globe. CPS has a 7.6% stake in the South Texas nuclear project, amounting to a total investment of $386 million. With the recent decision by NRG Energy, the project’s lead investor, to cut off future funding for the project, its future is very much in doubt. Nevertheless, given CPS’ sizeable investment to date, I believe we should continue to wait and see if outside investors will take interest in restarting the project. A wait-and-see approach will not have any effect on current energy rates for consumers, and could have long-term benefits if the plant is ultimately built. However, safety is, as always, my first and foremost concern.
Encouraging renewable energy development is also an important goal. The recently installed solar panel field on the Southeast Side is a positive development for clean energy use in San Antonio. However, this project underscores the fact that the city cannot pursue renewable energy alone. These projects have high up-front costs, and the solar field, for example, required collaboration across public, private, and non-profit sectors.

At the same time, the majority of residents in D4 are low- or lower-middle income. A major concern they have each month is how they are going to pay their energy bills, and this concern has been particularly acute during the recent economic downturn. As their councilman, I have to remain mindful of these concerns. As solar energy can cost as much as five-times as much as coal-powered energy, we must look to balance environmental concerns with cost considerations. It is important that we continue to seek renewable energy resources, while at the same time ensuring that we provide energy to consumers at a price that is fair.

How could the city better support public education? Do you support efforts to allow Mayor Julián Castro to be able to appoint some school board members?

As a deep believer in the value of education as well as a graduate of Stanford University’ School of Education Master’s Program, I am both a strong supporter of efforts to improve our education system and also appreciate the complex nature of education reform and the long history of failed initiatives. The Mayor’s recent decision to be more active in school board elections is a step in the right direction, and we should encourage those who are committed to our children’s future to serve on our school boards.

That being said, I would like to develop a more comprehensive vision for how we will develop our youth, incorporating the resources from various stakeholders who have a role to play in education efforts both inside and outside of the classroom. Looking at our current funding for early childhood education and family-strengthening programs, it is clear that we are focusing on placing our youngest residents on an early “conveyor belt” to academic success. While this is important, we cannot neglect the sustained effort it takes to keep a student on track towards high school graduation and college readiness. There is a great deal of research that outlines the “fadeout effect” of early childhood programs. Therefore, I would focus the City’s education funding on creating high quality after-school and summer programs that stress the following qualities:

  • Ongoing relationships with caring adults;
  • Safe places with structured activities;
  • Access to services that promote healthy life-styles, including those designed to improve physical and mental health;
  • Opportunities to acquire marketable skills and competencies;
  • Opportunities for community service and civic participation.

As models, I would look to successful city-sponsored programs in places like Boston (Mayors Youth Council & Boston Beyond,), Providence (Providence After School Alliance), and New York, which has taken important strides to tackle its dropout problem through strong, accountable leadership. In each of the aforementioned programs, success relies on the collaboration between public and private investment, and I’m pleased to see that the mayor has taken such an approach with his brainpower initiative.

A mindset that focuses solely on schools to ensure the success of our children relies too heavily on the time spent in the classroom; as such, a body of research has shown that much of the disparity in student achievement is rooted in what occurs outside of formal schooling. By and large, low-income students learn as rapidly as more privileged peers during the hours spent in school. Where they lose ground, though, is in their lack of participation in learning activities during after-school hours and summer vacations. On average, students spend 27% of their day at school, 33% sleeping and 40% out-of-school. Therefore, San Antonio must leverage this considerable component of students’ lives spent outside of the classroom, and focus on creating programs that abide by conventional best practices. As a researcher and an educator in this field, I am eager to work to find new approaches to a question that is deeply personal to me: how do we ensure that every student receives a quality education and has every opportunity to become a healthy and productive member of our community?

Given the EPA is planning on toughening national air quality standards, what steps do you think the city can take to make sure our skies are healthy (and federal transportation keeps flowing to San Antonio)?

The city as a whole has a 97.1% compliance rate with EPA ozone standards, and SA2020’s draft report recommended a 10% improvement in air quality (at the ground ozone level).  These issues are closely linked to the transportation issues. If we can expand San Antonio’s public transportation infrastructure and make pedestrian or bicycle transit a more realistic option, particularly downtown, we can reduce the amount of vehicle traffic resulting in less air pollution. Similarly, we must educate people on car-pooling, mass transit, and other ways that they can reduce their own personal carbon footprint. 

What is the right mix of public-transit options for San Antonio’s future, and what do you think is the best method to fund/maintain each element?

San Antonio continues to lag behind other cities in transportation infrastructure. We have no light-rail system and an outdated bus system, and the Mayor has made statements in support of expanding both. Having spent some time in other cities – including an extended period in Washington, DC, which has an expansive light-rail system – I know firsthand the economic and social benefits that a public transportation system can bring. However, expanding the VIA system or implementing a light-rail system would be very expensive. Expanding VIA would cost an estimated $10 million per square mile, while establishing a light-rail system would cost between $30 and $60 million per square mile. With President Obama’s initiative to increase investment in public infrastructure, San Antonio should look to the federal government as a partner in transportation investments, as the Mayor did recently in Washington.

In the meantime, San Antonio can continue to make smaller investments to address our traffic issues. The city can continue to expand bike lanes, as it has since 2000, and its B-cycle bike-sharing program. San Antonio has made great strides in improving accessibility for pedestrians and bike-riders. Since 2000, the city has added over 100 miles of new bike trails and lanes. In addition, in 2011 it launched a new B-cycle bike-sharing program, which has 14 bike stations downtown. These are great initiatives that encourage healthy lifestyles and reduce congestion, particularly downtown.

We must continue to invest in improving the conditions of our streets through the five-year rolling Infrastructure Maintenance Program and, more significantly, through the 2012 municipal bond. These issues are among the issues that I hear most frequently from residents when discussing their neighborhoods.

What life experiences make you uniquely qualified to serve on the city council?

As a lifelong resident of District 4, I have a deep understanding of the issues that the residents of this district face. I am a product of the public schools in this district and my family has called this district home for nearly 30 years. Additionally, to better familiarize myself with the issues of the community, I have been knocking on doors every day for six months to listen to residents’ concerns. I will take these conversations with me to City Hall, and have pledged to represent the interests of District 4 residents, and only their interests, on the council.

My professional and educational experiences have also prepared me for this position. I am currently an Adjunct Professor at Trinity University, where I teach a course on urban education and how the environments in which students live shape their futures. While the city does not control school boards or curricula, it can shape educational policy by ensuring that students have quality after-school programs and that they grow up in environments that are clean, safe, and conducive to learning.

Previously, I have also worked at the city level the District 4 field office and State Rep. Joaquin Castro’s district office, where I gained experience working with directly with residents and neighborhood organizations. I also gained experience working at the federal level with the U.S. Treasury Department, where I focused on creating public-private partnerships to stimulate economic growth during the 2009 financial crisis. Furthermore, my academic and research experience at Stanford University, where I received two bachelor’s degrees and a master’s in education policy, provided me with an understanding of different policy approaches to issues we face at the city level.

Please briefly describe your conception of San Antonio’s economy, its strengths and weaknesses, and what you would do to build on the former and address the latter?

The foundations of San Antonio’s economy date back to its history as a strong military city, as well as its long history as a leader in the hospitality industry ($11 Billion in 2008). However, the dynamics of the City’s economy are shifting with the growth of the bioscience and health care industries; in fact, one in every six San Antonio employees now works in these industries, which collectively generated $24.5 billion of business in 2009. In order to continue to grow, San Antonio must support these newer industries, as well as find new opportunities for expansion. For example, Information Technology, a sector that has grown by 20 percent since 2005, has an $8 billion dollar impact in the city. Likewise, with UTSA’s investments in sustainable energy and the developm
ent of Texas A&M’s new facility, San Antonio is poised to be a leader in the energy sector.

These new industries will create high-paying and high-skilled jobs, which will require collaboration with local universities in order to attract, develop, and retain a talented and skilled workforce. This has been a consistent challenge for San Antonio, and an even greater challenge for District 4. This means we must provide a strong educational foundation to our students, from kindergarten through college, to make sure they are prepared to enter a knowledge-based economy. We must then continue to ensure that San Antonio stays a great place for people to live, work, and raise a family. In order for San Antonio to continue to grow in the 21st century, we must not only seek to attract new businesses, but must make sure our city is doing everything it can to keep its best young talent where it belongs – right here in San Antonio. 

How do you financially support yourself? How will you balance your work demands with your council responsibilities? Do you foresee any conflicts of interest between your profession (or former profession, if you’re retired) and a position on council? If so, how will you handle these?

It is my intention to continue to support myself by teaching as an Adjunct Professor at Trinity University, as I have during the course of this campaign. Teaching will allow me the flexibility to be an effective councilperson. During this campaign, I have worked day and night while still successfully fulfilling my teaching responsibilities, and I have full confidence that I will be able to continue to do so as a Council representative. My position at Trinity also means that I will have no personal ties to City business or contracts. In fact, as part of my teaching we work with local schools and non-profits to assess the effectiveness of various educational methods, both inside and outside of the classroom. My research experience will benefit the Council as we work to find new ways to educate our children and provide them with a better future. 
However, I am aware that conflicts of interest have been a concern in past Councils, and I am strongly committed to running an ethical and transparent office. All conflicts of interest must be disclosed and that Councilperson must recuse his or herself from that particular debate.

There should be no exceptions to this rule.

Should service on the San Antonio City Council provide a living wage? Why or why not?

Every Council candidate must understand that this position is taken effectively on a volunteer basis. However, serving on the Council requires substantial financial sacrifice. It is unfortunate that, far too often, this sacrifice means that many qualified individuals choose to stay on the sidelines because they simply cannot financially afford to serve. While I do not believe councilpersons should be paid lavishly, a living wage would allow more individuals with a greater diversity of experience to run for office. Everyone’s hope should be that the best candidates run and earn the right to serve the City and its residents, regardless of their personal financial means. 



Find out what district you live in, how to register to vote, information on the the other districts and more in our 2011 City Council Election Guide.




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