Facing legislative push to reform funding, South Texas ISD begins countermeasures

Sasha Crane is seen during Tuesday’s STISD board meeting on Jan 24. 2023. (Courtesy photo)

MERCEDES — South Texas ISD leadership last week discussed its response to a legislative push to restructure its funding mechanisms as more Rio Grande Valley school districts added their names to the list of institutions calling for reform.

Those steps include one of its better-connected trustees taking the helm of a special legislative committee and the hiring of a well-known public relations consultant in the Valley.

By all appearances, the district is digging in for a sustained campaign against critics.

Those critics are growing in number.

So far at least nine school boards have voted to support the effort to eliminate STISD’s taxing status, including the Lyford, Point Isabel, Edinburg, McAllen, Brownsville, Sharyland, Edcouch-Elsa, Harlingen and Mission school districts — which joined the cause just Wednesday.

Trustees from many of those districts voted unanimously on the topic. Edcouch-Elsa ISD school board member Ricardo Ochoa had to abstain from the South Texas ISD resolution vote since he also sits on that board.

There are 24 elected and appointed directors of the district, a body self-described as the largest independent school board in the U.S.

Critics argue that STISD — which taxes residents in Cameron, Hidalgo and Willacy counties — has strayed from its original purpose as an institution for people with disabilities and now unfairly competes against regular districts in a system that benefits only its students and teachers at the expense of taxpayers in general.

South Texas ISD has responded largely by saying those districts and the media are spreading “misinformation” that’s skewed and biased, arguing that it’s a quality institution with funding mechanisms that are not inequitable to other districts in the area.

“We don’t spend a lot of money on athletics facilities and astroturf and box seats. And we don’t buy golf courses and waterparks,” STISD Superintendent Marco Antonio Lara told his board Tuesday, taking a tacit crack at La Joya ISD. “Our money is focused on academics, and that’s where it needs to be.”

So far, Valley legislators have largely only said they’re watching the situation closely, although state Rep. Sergio Munoz, D-Palmview, has said he intends to introduce reform legislation imminently. State Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, has also said he’ll consider legislation.

Tuesday, at their first board meeting since the push began, STISD directors shed some light on the district’s response to the restructuring effort, including the hiring of McAllen-based public relations firm Absolute Business Consulting.

The firm is owned by Karina Cardoza, who has a track record of government and public relations work in the Valley. She previously worked as grants coordinator for former U.S. Rep. Ruben Hinojosa and served as director of Hidalgo County’s public affairs division for several years.

Currently, Cardoza does public relations work for the city of San Juan and in recent years has done consulting for the city of Pharr and for Edinburg CISD during their 2019 bond election.

“Part of the work that that communications firm will assist us with — because they have the expertise in dealing with the political and with the legislators — is to get the messaging out there,” Lara told his board Tuesday, noting that the firm will have a budget of $9,000 a month.

South Texas ISD school buses are seen in this undated photo. (Courtesy: South Texas ISD/Facebook)

A special legislative committee chaired by Director Sasha Crane will also plead the district’s case to lawmakers.

Crane is the widow of the late three-term McAllen City Commissioner Scott Crane, who died in 2014. A year ago Gov. Greg Abbott appointed her to the Governor’s Commission for Women, which specializes in outreach, education, research and referral services.

Crane’s term on that commission runs through the end of this year.

“I think our biggest mountain to climb is the misinformation that’s out there,” she said during Tuesday’s meeting.

The district is already responding to that “misinformation” with some information of its own. Lara said Tuesday that the district has sent Valley legislators a letter co-signed by him and Board President Henry LeVrier, a fact sheet and a resolution.

The resolution, signed Dec. 13, asks legislators to continue supporting the “intent and purpose” of the district, as well as its funding methodology. In the letter, Lara and LeVrier describe the proposed tax authority elimination as a “direct threat to the existence of South Texas ISD.”

Earlier this month the district told faculty and staff it would provide them with talking points they could send their elected officials.

Lara told directors Tuesday that the defense will also include in-person meetings with legislators. He’s hoping to catch them before they return to Austin.

“If there’s a particular legislator that you have a good relationship (with), email me, let me know,” he said.

STISD has argued since the beginning that other Valley districts should focus more on improving funding for everyone than on knocking South Texas ISD down a peg.

LeVrier said Tuesday that he’d had a chat with Brownsville ISD Superintendent Rene Gutierrez about the push. According to LeVrier, the conversation made him think there may be an opportunity to join critical districts in a push for more money for everybody.

“But it’s real interesting how they’re starting to line up,” he said. “They’re willing to join with us. They’re willing to fight the same fight — to help them close the gap. And it’s not necessarily a fight just against us … So I think it’s a good move, and we can work together towards a common goal.”

Gutierrez could not be reached for comment as of press time.