Alicia Perry, Patti Radle, and Christina Martinez won their individual board races on Saturday. But the numbers tell a deeper story if we dig a little.
On Saturday evening, Alicia Perry (District 2), and Christina Martinez (District 6) were elected to the SAISD school board for the first time, while Board President Patti Radle (District 5) was re-elected for another term.
While Superintendent Martinez and SAISD’s embattled school board incumbents will be celebrating today, the story of the May 4 election is a little more complicated than they might wish us to believe. Across the district, some 65% of voters voted for candidates opposed to the decisions undertaken by SAISD incumbents. A vindication of current board policies and Pedro Martinez’ plans this was not.
Alicia Perry - an outspoken critic of the current direction of SAISD - won the District 2 election by a landslide. Perry ran on a platform of putting the teachers and the students first again, openly criticized the current board’s plans, warned against charter infiltration and the Portfolio Model, was endorsed by SAISD teachers, and worked closely with them on her campaign. Her winning margin was by far the largest of any winning candidate, and her performance must be seen as a resounding rejection of the status quo in the Sam Houston area.
But perhaps the best indicator of support for the status quo across all races came from the performance of Chris Green, running on a platform of supporting the Superintendent’s vision, and supporting the direction undertaken by the current board.
Green is an SAISD teacher and union member, but has been careful to distance himself from the critiques leveled by union representatives, and does not work with the Alliance on any issues. Green is a TFA alumnus, and member of TFA and LEE spin-off group SA RISE - an organization close to current SAISD leaders, which has a consistent track record of supporting Superintendent Martinez and the current school board against the elected voice of SAISD teachers (either explicitly, or implicitly by refusing to support union and community positions critical of SAISD leaders).
He’s been a Teach Plus fellow - an organization closely linked to Bill Gates funded anti-union education reform - and serves on the advisory board of Texas Aspires - an education reform organization that consistently takes anti-union, pro charter, and pro merit pay positions on education issues in Texas.
These positions, incidentally, are popular with, and have been advocated for, by high-ranking SAISD staff including Seth Rau - the district's Director of Strategic and Legislative Partnerships who emailed Master Teachers earlier this year to advocate for such policies, receiving a public rebuke from Texas unions.
No surprise then that Chris Green received no votes during the endorsement process by which representatives of SAISD teachers unanimously chose Alicia Perry as the union’s endorsed candidate for District 2.
Green finished last in the District 2 race, garnering only 8% of the vote, despite being the preferred candidate - in policy terms - of current district leaders, and providing an almost-identical set of answers to the Alliance’s candidate questionnaire as Christina Martinez. In Chris Green, District 2 voters had a chance to elect a continuity candidate - a candidate running in support of the current board, superintendent, and their proposed direction for the district - and they overwhelmingly rejected him, by a margin of more than ten-to-one.
“I’m going to be a good team player, but everyone definitely understands my stance and that won’t change,” said Alicia Monica Perry, 39, the new District 2 trustee. “I’m still going to have a voice. I’m still going to push for what’s right for our district.”
Voters had a chance to elect a strongly pro neoliberal “reform” candidate, an advocate of school “choice” and a candidate who had consistently takes district leaders' side rather than that of fellow teachers. Instead they overwhelmingly chose a candidate who stood by union teachers, advocated for community control of neighborhood schools, and critiqued the choice school focus of the current board.
Long-time incumbent, and former city council member Patti Radle was re-elected in District 5 with 57.33 of the vote. Her opponent, Janell Garza Rubio, a mother of three students at Lanier and Tafolla, took far more votes from Radle than many had expected in the run-up to the election. That Radle, with her huge amount of political capital, name recognition, and historic position in the Westside won by only 217 votes against a virtual unknown - a local mother opposed to the direction of school board decision-making - speaks volumes about Westsiders’ level of belief in her leadership of SAISD.
Radle should be newly humbled by this election - by far her toughest test as a board member. She should seek to listen to the voters who opposed her, and the groundswell of community discontent with her leadership. It’s time for her to stop claiming that her constituents are misinformed, and to engage seriously with those who disagree with her - some 40% of the voting population - and to consider their opposition as a good-faith disagreement about her policy decisions.
As predicted, Christina Martinez was elected because the not-Christina / not-Pedro Martinez vote was split between Eduardo Torres and Chris Castro. Overall, 62% of voters in District 6 voted against her, and for candidates who explicitly and forcefully rejected her support for Superintendent Martinez and his plans for the district. That she was rejected by a margin of almost two-to-one by her constituents should be a wake-up-call for Martinez. Painting her election to the board as, in any way, an endorsement of the current direction of SAISD would be disingenuous at best.
If Christina Martinez represents all of her constituents, not just the 39% of the voting population who voted for her, she needs to start listening to the concerns of the community she serves - concerns that shaped the campaigns of both of her challengers, and that proved far more popular - by a margin of almost two-to-one - than the decisions she has taken as a board member.
Incumbents hold a major advantage in local elections
Across San Antonio, incumbents were returned to the offices they held. The incumbent effect on local elections is enormous and well-documented, and voter rejection of incumbents is extremely rare in local political races in which name recognition, accrued political capital, and low voter turnouts combine to return recognized faces to office time and again. That incumbents retained their positions in the SAISD elections tells us little about the policy preferences of voters, and much more about the increased visibility and name recognition that comes with holding political office. Indeed, in the only race in which the incumbent effect was absent (SAISD District 2), voters overwhelmingly rejected the policy positions of the status-quo-supporting incumbents returned to office elsewhere.
It is virtually always better to be an incumbent than a challenger in American elections. - Jessica Trounstine, Princeton University
School board election cycles are designed to maintain stability and prioritize continuity and stability over change
This incumbent effect, combined with the staggered terms of board members, produce school board compositions that ensure that continuity and stability are maintained, and that change is difficult, and slow. We’ll have to wait another two years for another board election, and the opportunity for a major shift in the way the SAISD school board operates. Such design ensures stability - for which we should be thankful - but also means that the wishes of much of the SAISD community (some 65% of voters in this election) may fail to impact the decision-making process at the highest levels of district leadership.
Most SAISD families don’t participate in elections
We should resist any attempt to paint our families’ non-participation in board elections as a stamp of approval for current policies. San Antonio communities are alienated by local politics, and only one in ten eligible voters turned out to decide these races. Voters are disproportionately older, more affluent, and by definition, are not representative of the most vulnerable members of our communities - including undocumented immigrants, felons, and prisoners. But all of the above should have a voice in the way our communities’ schools run.
Democracy should mean more than a once-every-four-years opportunity to vote for new leaders who make decisions for the communities they represent
We should reject the idea that our representatives (especially when elected by 39% of voters in elections decided by 11% of the eligible population) should govern in our names. Democracy should mean more than that, and as teachers, students, and community members have explained for years, district decision-making should include all stakeholders, with board members performing an executive function - manifesting the will of the people they serve, rather than making decisions for them.
The resounding message from the May 4 SAISD school board election is that many members of the community reject the course being set by Superintendent Martinez and his board. Hopefully the new school board members, and the remaining incumbents will hear this message and change their approach to decision-making by including all parties - students, parents, community members, and teachers, long excluded from participation in these discussions.
Perhaps Chris Castro, former SAISD Principal, and candidate for District 6 explained it best:
“At the end of the day, I think it shows that over  percent of the community has a real confidence problem in the superintendent and this board. I hope it sends a very strong message that they need to listen to the community and there needs to be more transparency.”
Experience tells us that we might have to make sure that they get the message.