EDITORIAL: Is closing schools only option for McAllen ISD? Was district transparent with plans?

Minutes before McAllen ISD Board Trustees voted Monday night to close Navarro Elementary and Lincoln Middle schools, former Board President and current Trustee Sam Saldivar Jr., looked into an audience of concerned parents and staff at the McAllen High School meeting and tried to explain why this needed to be done immediately. He recited a “call to action” statement that was born from a 2016 Education Summit, attended at the time by community members who were trying to help the district develop a five-year strategic plan after its failed bond election.

The statement, written April 20, 2016, reads: “We ensure every student acquires future-ready knowledge and skills through diverse opportunities to successfully compete, innovate and adapt in an ever-changing global community.”

It’s a great mission goal, but we disagree with the way that Saldivar tried to tie it to Monday’s rushed vote to close beloved community schools. Because although district officials say they have worked on this for two years and held multiple meetings and workshops, the meetings were sparsely attended and we don’t feel the public was properly informed or aware of the district’s impending plans to close schools. Even during the 2016 community summit — which The Monitor Board participated in — specific school closings were never discussed.

In fact, The Monitor was not even aware until just very recently that Navarro Elementary and Lincoln Middle School were even on the chopping block for considered closure, as well as other rezoning plans that were passed Monday night that will significantly change the district.

The lack of transparency by McAllen ISD leading up to the passage of such a controversial decision —to close two schools this fall and another in 2019 — as well as the spin the district has been trying to put on it, is troubling.

Saldivar said the closures are “mission critical for the district, for this region.”

If so, then why wasn’t this better explained and presented to the public? Why does this seem like such a big surprise? Why weren’t the reasons behind these decisions — like safety concerns for Achieve Early High School students housed in portable classrooms (who will now take over the Lincoln campus,) and expensive maintenance costs of operating half-full campuses, for example — touted to the community to get our buy in?

It’s true that the district’s administration has held workshops and some town hall meetings since 2016 to vet their financial shortfalls and look for revenue solutions to overcome a dwindling student population. But it wasn’t until a March 7 board facilities workshop, just seven weeks ago, when the idea of closing Lincoln Middle School and Navarro Elementary was first publicly presented.

District administrators told us they have been up front with the public and cited a May 2017 survey that found 55 percent of 1,239 respondents were in favor of McAllen ISD “closing under utilized schools in order to reallocate operating funds to other schools;” 30 percent were against and 15 percent unsure. MGT Consulting Group conducted the survey for the district, however that survey did not name any specific schools under consideration for closing and it was vague and quite general. That same survey also asked: “Would you favor consolidating schools to reduce costs and improve utilization?” Most, 37 percent, said no, while 32 percent agreed and 31 percent answered it “depends on the school,” according to a report released in September 2017.

Alfonso Treviño, president of the Lincoln Middle School Parent Teach Organization, told us Monday night he was shocked and caught off guard. “We heard rumors a couple years ago that the school would close but every time we asked they never said anything. I’d bring it up. And then a week ago they said it would happen,” he said. Treviño’s sixth grade son, a band member, will attend a different school in the fall and he is concerned whether his son, Alfonso G. Treviño, will be selected for that band’s small percussion section. “I was surprised, but they told me it was on the website.”

If it was, it was buried deep within the 505 page report, “Facilities Education Master Plan,” that was passed Monday night by trustees in a 5 to 2 vote.

We don’t believe that these key school closure items from this massive report were properly highlighted to families or the community prior to the vote. Even the board’s agenda item for Monday night’s meeting did not include the word “closure,” but only the master plan title.

And the district’s public relation’s department refused to release the document to The Monitor prior to Monday night’s vote, saying it was a “draft.”

McAllen ISD’s administration went about this the wrong way. They failed to openly and readily provide critical and necessary information to the public on a subject that will affect a great many families for years to come.

Redistricting, rezoning, and closing schools have enormous economic, psychological and emotional repercussions for any community. A decision of this magnitude must be done in a completely transparent and explanatory way.

We recognize the financial struggles that McAllen ISD has been under due to decreased enrollment, aging infrastructure and the community’s refusal to pass a $297 million bond request in 2015. But that is no excuse for keeping the public in the dark.

Parents and community stakeholders had a right to know about the two other school closure scenarios the board was considering.

The community needed to know that passage of this plan, put forth by Superintendent Jose Gonzalez and his staff, will end all student transfers from outside the residential zone to two of the most popular elementary schools: Gonzalez and Milam, beginning in the fall. Doing so will cause a revenue loss to the district, and will affect area real estate sales.

The community needed to know that in approving this plan, that Bonham Elementary School will be closed in 2019-2020.

The community needed to know that in approving this plan that 107 De Leon Middle School students will now go to Fossum Middle School; and 185 Fossum students, who thought they were going to start their freshmen year at McAllen High School, will instead attend Nikki Rowe High in the fall.

And the community needs to understand that a Tax Ratification Election (TRE) is the next step to follow and that the board on June 11 is slated to vote on whether to hold a Sept. 8, 2018, election. (This is a tax swap election allowed by the state that will not increase property taxes.)

Trustee Debbie Crane Aliseda, who with Trustee Larry Esparza voted against the measure Monday night, pleaded with the board to delay the vote. “We’re operating in a bubble. We haven’t gone out to the public, talked to stakeholders and our community. It would behoove the board to call another workshop, call another town hall, make adjustments,” Aliseda said. “Schools have to be repurposed, but we shouldn’t be doing it without talking to members of our community and seeing what they think.”

We agree with Aliseda that meetings should be set up with the mayors of neighboring communities and economic developers and power brokers to see if there is outside interest in purchasing district land or utilizing district buildings. For instance, the City of McAllen or UTRGV might be interested in using a campus for office space. And, as Aliseda said, why not put all unused McAllen ISD land up for sale, rather than just the three tracks that are listed in this plan?

One interesting idea she ran by us would be for the district to sell its unused land across from Rowe High School to the City of McAllen to build the natatorium that McAllen Mayor Jim Darling has long wanted. And, since there is enough classroom space and few students, why not move Achieve Early High School into Lincoln Middle School, and still keep the middle school open?

“A lot of work went into this plan,” Gonzalez said Monday. “This was a big undertaking with a lot of hours and we worked hard as a team.”

Perhaps the administration and staff labored over these choices, but the taxpayers and public also are an essential part of this process and we feel we were left out.

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