Just the other day I asked a member of the San Antonio Alliance, the San Antonio ISD teachers and support staff union, whether relations with the district administration had improved at all. She demurred.
But today I got my answer.
They have not.
The Alliance distributed a questionnaire, printed below in its entirety, to vet the candidates on a range of issues. A few of these are standard ethics questions, and few more pertain to how the board and administration relate to the union. It reminds us all that the Alliance does plenty of work that is not defined by it’s contentious relationship to the current board and administration.
However, exactly half of the 22 questions do expand on this question:
3. How do your views align with or differ from the current SAISD superintendent’s views?
Candidate’s answers to these questions will be further fleshed out in forums according to Alliance executive Katy Bravenec. From there, the Alliance’s political action committee (PAC) will make it’s endorsement.
“Our Alliance PAC board will determine the endorsements after all of the candidate forums are complete,” Bravenec wrote in a message, “Our Alliance PAC board will choose the candidates that they believe will best represent SAISD students, families and teachers based on the responses candidates give to all questions.”
During the last board election in May 2017, the Alliance endorsed all incumbent board members, despite less visible tensions between the union and Martinez, who had 7-0 board votes piling up in his favor.
In May 2018 came the 132-teacher layoffs, alluded to specifically in the questionnaire. Now, in May 2019 sitting board members may be facing re-election into the headwinds promised by teachers and their advocates during the layoffs.
Municipal elections do not typically bring out the voters, though a mayoral race on the ballot should help a bit. Teachers do vote. They campaign. This matters to them. Other groups–parents, business leaders, or SAISD taxpayers–could develop their own questionnaire, or host their own forums, letting candidates know they too have concerns and priorities. But for that to matter, they’ll need to be able to back up those priorities with votes.
The questions elucidate some of Alliances continuing disagreement with the the current administration over the direction of the district. Questions like this one indicate that the Alliance considers Superintendent Pedro Martinez as either responsible for declining enrollment, or doing little to stop the bleeding. They don’t acknowledge that the decline has been going on for decades, though they are correct that it has gotten pretty steep in recent years.
10. Over the past three years, under the current superintendent, student enrollment in SAISD has dropped by approximately 5,000 students. How would you hold the superintendent accountable for this drop in student enrollment? What ideas do you have for retaining our students and for increasing student enrollment?
Martinez has not been sheepish about declining enrollment. In May of last year, he included this assessment.
This school year, the number of in-boundary students who did not attend SAISD was 8,654, with the great majority of them enrolled in external charter schools. That’s an increase of 3,242 students from the prior year, the largest increase we’ve seen to date. However, our enrollment only declined about 1,800 students – a little more than half of that. While still a substantial loss, it could have been worse. Our increased options for families has helped to offset some of this.
Competition for students has been increasing over the past five years, and recognizing this trend, we proactively have been preparing for it. We know that some parents and students are seeking different options, and we have been developing more diverse models and programs – through in-district charters, partnerships and expansion of successful programs to more neighborhood schools. These options have kept or brought in families.
So Martinez’s answer, unanimously backed by the current board, is to create SAISD choices to compete with non-SAISD choices. That’s not just charter schools. We can’t forget that moving out of the district is a form of school choice. One exercised by more than a few SAISD teachers.
We call this white/middle-class flight, and it’s left many areas of SAISD in deep poverty. There is not a single SAISD school with less than 60 percent free-and-reduced lunch (FRL) rate. Some are as high as 99.5 percent. With that many kids living in households where food and electricity may be unreliable, where parents are working around the clock and still struggling to make ends meet, where doctor visits and dentist visits aren’t happening, schools start to feel the squeeze. They need more counselors. They need more specialists.
In response to this data, SAISD Chief Innovation Officer Mohammed Choudhury (the guy behind the diverse by design initiative) likes to say, “We have to do high poverty schools well, and we need to stop recreating them.”
But Choudhury is the Alliance’s Public Enemy #2, for sure. In its questionnaire the Alliance calls into question that second part of his mantra.
8. Over 90% of our SAISD students are economically disadvantaged. What is your view of the current administration’s “diverse by design” initiative in which they aim to create schools, not tied to a neighborhood, in which half of the students come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and half of the students come from middle or upper-middle class backgrounds?
Here the Alliance builds its case that SAISD is more interested in serving the middle and upper-middle classes than it is in serving it’s lowest income populations.
(I have to take a moment to appreciate the irony that Patti Radle is one of those board members running for re-election and thus being questioned about her commitment to the poor.)
My understanding of the district’s choice-school initiative, after reporting on every sneeze, hiccup, and toot of this administration is this: First, the middle class, broadly speaking, has been leaving the district for decades, so that’s the low hanging fruit of who they can get back to bring up enrollment (and avoid another round of layoffs). Next, socioeconomic diversity is a plan intended to benefit kids currently being educated in what’s called “concentrated poverty.”
Here’s a tidbit of the research behind that strategy:
Socioeconomic (SES) school integration is a public policy designed to improve opportunities for students by: 1) reducing the negative educational effects associated with school poverty concentrations, and 2) providing a diverse environment that benefits all students.
Lastly, while 50 percent of the diverse by design schools are reserved for kids who qualify for free and reduced lunch (parents make $44,000 or less), a quarter of those seats are reserved for kids living in the deepest poverty in the city (median incomes between $19,000-$27,000).
If the district were interested in catering to wealthy families, the token 50 percent low-income seats would not be so heavily policed by Choudhury’s office. They would open the doors, let the chips fall where they may, and you’d have 50 percent middle class kids and 50 percent kids from the higher end of the low-income spectrum. That’s how choice works if you don’t police it, and there’s no incentive to police it unless you’re trying to make it equitable.
Honestly, if you were trying to court middle class families only, you’d just open up a bunch of specialized academies with no guardrails and let them fill up the way that all special curriculum schools do. Check the economic math on schools like the International School of the Americas, Great Hearts, BASIS, Health Careers. That’s how it works.
The district has been quick to admit that things aren’t moving as fast as they want them to at some of the schools. However, it’s not accurate to imply that the district isn’t trying to “do high poverty schools well.” By deploying principals like Sonya Mora to Gates Elementary, Brian Sparks to Bowden Elementary, and Master teachers throughout the district, the administration is arguably doing one thing that has proven to be effective across the country. It’s just going to take time to scale, the district says. Many of the glitzier schools, like CAST Tech and ALA are made possible through highly specific partnerships and grants–but the meat and potatoes of school improvement are being distributed throughout.
There are also, however, some resources that the Alliance does not want given to high-poverty schools: charter partners.
In its questionnaire the Alliance seeks further assurance that board members will not pursue/support more Democracy Prep and Relay Lab Schools-style charter partnerships, which they oppose on many fronts. For teacher’s unions around the country, “charter school” is simply a non-starter. They don’t want to cooperate, compete, or cooperpete.
All that to say, the charter question is not surprising.
The Alliance would also like to hear board members vow to do whatever it takes to avoid a RIF. That’s an understandable concern for a teachers union to have.
However, two State initiatives–the District of Innovation and the System of Great Schools–have also enflamed frustrations. Both make an appearance on the questionnaire. These two initiatives have poised the district to continue ambitious changes, and will likely be the backdrop of every district maneuver for the foreseeable future. They give legal and philosophical grounding to major changes—many of which will effect teachers.
Given that only three positions out of seven will be on the May ballot, there’s almost no chance of a board flip, or a rerouting of the district. However, 3-4 split decisions aren’t where any board wants to be, and it could slow things down significantly if resistance to Martinez gains a foothold.
The full questionnaire can be read below:
2019 SAISD School Board Questionnaire
Name: _________________________________________ SAISD Single-Member District #: ______
PLEASE NOTE: When the question is a multi-part question, please be sure to answer all parts of the question. If there is a question that asks about something with which you are not familiar, please research the issue as this is something you will need to be able to do as a school board member.
- What do you feel are the most important qualities and skills you bring to the Board?
- What do you believe is the single most important issue the district faces right now?
- How do your views align with or differ from the current SAISD superintendent’s views?
- Do you support or oppose the privatization (contracting out) of the district’s custodians, food service employees, trades people, and other support personnel? Why or why not?
- Do you support or oppose the state law that provides a financial incentive for public school districts to partner with privately-run charters? Do you think that public school districts should partner with privately-run charter schools? Why or why not? As a school board member would you support a resolution declaring the board’s opposition to charter partnerships, privatization of schools, and corporate grants intended for privately-managed schools?
- Do you support or oppose the district’s contract with Democracy Prep, a privately-run charter from New York City, to operate Stewart ES? Do you support or oppose the district’s contract with Relay Lab Schools, a privately-run charter, to operate Storm and Ogden?
- What are your views regarding “choice” schools? What are your views regarding neighborhood schools and their preservation? What do you think is the appropriate balance between “choice” schools and neighborhood schools and why?
- Over 90% of our SAISD students are economically disadvantaged. What is your view of the current administration’s “diverse by design” initiative in which they aim to create schools, not tied to a neighborhood, in which half of the students come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and half of the students come from middle or upper-middle class backgrounds?
- What is your view of the “portfolio model,” embodied in SAISD as the “System of Great Schools?”
- Over the past three years, under the current superintendent, student enrollment in SAISD has dropped by approximately 5,000 students. How would you hold the superintendent accountable for this drop in student enrollment? What ideas do you have for retaining our students and for increasing student enrollment?
- Over the past two years, the district has not complied with the state law of no more than 22 students per classroom for K-4th grade due to the district’s District of Innovation status under which they have a waiver from this state law. Would you support removing the class size waiver from the District of Innovation plan so that our K-4th grade classes have no more than 22 students? Would you support a resolution directing the superintendent to work with our union to create reasonable class size limits for other grade levels?
- Last Spring, the superintendent recommended, and the school board approved, a “reduction in force” (RIF) of teachers for the first time in SAISD history. 132 teachers were RIF’d purportedly because of the district’s financial situation. Would you support another RIF of teachers and/or support personnel this Spring? Why or why not? If not, what steps would you take to help avoid a RIF?
- This school year, the district began the year with 35 teaching vacancies. In past years, the district has begun the year with no more than 0-5 vacancies. How will you hold the superintendent and the district’s Talent Management Department accountable for this? We have some classes this school year that had a sub all or most of the first semester due to the high number of unfilled teaching vacancies. How will you hold the superintendent and Talent Management accountable for this?
- Do you support high-stakes state testing of students? Do you support the concept of rewarding teachers based on student test scores? Why or why not? Do you support the concept of rewarding principals based on student test scores? Why or why not?
- What measures do you believe need to be taken to attract teachers and support personnel to our district? What measures do you believe need to be taken to retain them? Do you view experienced teachers and support personnel as an asset or liability? Why or why not?
- Do you support and respect the current SAISD Consultation policy regarding input from employees, including the right of the employees to choose their exclusive representative organization in a secret ballot election? Why or why not?
- For seventeen years, our union partnered with SAISD to provide high-quality, research-based professional development for new teachers that was facilitated by active SAISD teachers. For the 2018-19 school year, the district discontinued the partnership without explanation. New teachers, and those who provide them with support, consistently tell us that they need the support that the partnership provided them. Would you support the reinstatement of this partnership between our union and SAISD?
- From whom have you received support, or expect to receive support, for your campaign? What resources and support will you have to help you run a successful campaign?
- If elected, from whom would you seek advice regarding issues that come before the Board?
- Would you be willing to meet regularly with Alliance leaders and members to discuss issues and how the implementation of district initiatives play out in the field?
- If faced with a decision to stand for what you believe in, for the good of our students, our teachers, our district, and it meant being the only board member for or against an issue, would you stand firm, or decide to follow the rest of the board and change your vote?
- Do you have a personal or professional relationship with the district or its contracting agencies which involves compensation to you or your family members? If yes, please list those.