Who could have predicted that SAISD's controversial partnership with the New York-based charter company would reveal so much about district leadership? Just about everyone, it turns out.
By Luke Amphlett
News broke yesterday that Seth Andrew, founder of New York-based charter company, Democracy Prep, was arrested for stealing $218,000 from the school chain.
The Ex-Obama White House advisor faces charges of money laundering, wire fraud, and lying to a financial institution, all stemming from his alleged theft of funds from K-12 institutions.
It’s a sordid tale of prioritizing personal profit over the public interest - literally stealing from children - that sounds too familiar if you keep up with charter school news in the U.S.
But it’s also a story with particular relevance to San Antonio, and to taxpayers, students, educators, and families in San Antonio ISD. In 2018, San Antonio ISD board trustees voted unanimously to hand over control of Stewart Elementary, on San Antonio’s Southeast Side, to the charter company.
This week, voters across SAISD will have the chance to vote for the incumbents who masterminded this charter school disaster, or for a slate of candidates who believe that public schools belong to the people, and should manifest the people’s will.
Stewart had been in Improvement Required (IR) status for several years, and was slated to be closed if it failed to escape from IR when the 2018 state accountability ratings were released. In anticipation of this closure, but against the will of school workers and community members, SAISD leaders gave control of the school to Democracy Prep in order to stave off state sanctions.
But, as predicted by teachers at the school, Stewart Elementary not only escaped IR, but was rated a “B” campus in 2018 - one of the top-ranked Elementary schools in SAISD, and among the fastest improving in the city.
The following year, as local newspapers fawned over the “more stable footing” on which the students and school workers stood, Stewart slipped from a “B” to a “D” rated school - the promise of the previous year vanishing in just one year of Democracy Prep’s management, anti-worker and anti-union policies, and lack of teacher experience.
Then in (2020), a Texas judge found that, exactly as the San Antonio Alliance had argued all along, SAISD had failed to follow the law in giving Stewart Elementary away.
In fact, in order to hand over Stewart Elementary to the New York-based charter company, Superintendent Martinez and his board - including the current incumbents and candidates for re-election - had to drown out debate, community and teacher input, and consultation.
Parents, community members, and teachers repeatedly called on Martinez and the board of trustees to consult and partner with them in deciding the future of their neighborhood school. Again and again their calls were ignored by the district leaders whose job is to serve them and act in their interests. Again and again district leaders refused to consider alternatives to plans which had been devised behind the scenes many months earlier. While the Stewart community was excluded at every turn, Democracy Prep was being courted in back room deals, hidden from public scrutiny, by district leaders.
Stewart teachers, parents, and students were dismissed and denied the chance to escape the State’s “improvement required” rating by a district leadership unwilling even to make its contract with Democracy Prep conditional on the school’s failure to meet standards.
A campus that was safe from state sanction was dismembered and sold off, all but two of its teachers leaving rather than work for the charter company with high teacher turnover rates (34 percent across all campuses last year), low expectations for teacher qualifications (as few as 44 percent of teachers being certified), and regressive and punitive disciplinary practices (28 percent suspension rate).
In order to hand over Stewart Elementary to a New York-based charter company, Martinez and his board - including the current incumbents and candidates for re-election - had to drown out debate, community and teacher input, and consultation.
This week, voters across SAISD will have the chance to vote for the incumbents who masterminded this charter school disaster, or for a slate of candidates who believe that public schools belong to the people, and should manifest the people’s will. The architects of the anti-democratic, backroom takeover of Stewart Elementary are on the ballot, and their challengers not only opposed, but fought to prevent the takeover as it was taking place.
And they warned that in the Democracy Prep deal, district leaders were showing their true colors - as far more interested in private profit and charter partnerships than in the democratic governance of San Antonio schools.
They were right then, and, as the latest news about Democracy Prep’s founder shows, they’re right now.
It’s time to choose a different course in SAISD - to see our schools not as brick-and-mortar campuses to be sold to outside companies, but as the thriving, diverse communities of students, educators, and families who make up their beating heart.
And it’s time to defend them from the vultures and profiteers who would dismantle them for their own gain.
This Saturday’s election gives us an opportunity to do just that - to reject the incumbents’ charter-friendly, superficial notion of progress, and to vote for candidates who have proven time and time again that they will fight for students, school workers, and families.
Let’s choose the SAISD we want at the ballot box, and win the schools our students deserve.