EDCOUCH — It’s all about family.
That’s what dozens of parents and school staff wanted the Edcouch-Elsa ISD superintendent to understand as they filled the school board room beyond capacity Wednesday evening.
They were there to voice their disagreement over Superintendent Gregory Rodriguez’s decision to reassign administrators of several schools within the district, but especially his reassignment of Ruben C. Rodriguez Elementary (RCR) Principal Marisela Olivares.
“RCR is really great and he’s trying to destroy that,” said Clarissa Lopez, whose two children attend kindergarten and fourth grade at the school.
“He’s destroying the backbone of the school. The school’s all about family,” Lopez said as a cavalcade of parents, district employees, and even some members of the school board gathered in the parking lot of the Elsa Walmart prior to heading to Wednesday’s school board meeting en masse.
Lopez said she and other members learned of Rodriguez’s decision via a letter posted to the district’s Facebook page last Friday. The news perplexed her and “devastated” her children, who cried when they heard, she said.
Lopez had nothing but praise for the principal, whom she said cares deeply about her students.
“My daughter has epilepsy, and I wanted to move my daughter to another school district just because she’s closer to home, and this principal called me, ‘No, you’re not moving my baby. I reassure you, she’ll be fine,’” Lopez said of a conversation she had with Olivares.
“‘My baby.’ When are you going to find a principal who cares that much for her students?” Lopez asked.
That praise was echoed by half-a-dozen parents and grandparents who offered public comment during the school board meeting — comments met with raucous applause from the dozens more people who filled the boardroom and spilled out into the hallway Wednesday.
But it wasn’t just the students’ families who spoke. School counselor Gloria Arizmende took to the lectern to implore the superintendent to change his mind.
“Based on my experience, the proposed change to campus administrators, principal and facilitators would be harmful and potentially damaging to our current students,” Arizmende said.
She then went on to explain how the school has created a culture that holistically supports students’ wellbeing — largely as a result of Olivares’ leadership — including expanding the role of counseling.
Arizmende said she has conducted more than 500 guided classroom sessions — in addition to her responsibilities working in conjunction with the school’s special education department — and other duties, such as crisis counseling.
The school’s supportive environment is so well-loved that it has increasingly attracted students who live outside the district to attend — from 13 non-zoned students in 2017 to more than 60 non-zoned students this school year, Arizmende said.
“This has all occurred because of the direction and leadership of our current administration, which strives to have success for the entire student — social, emotional, mental — all these things they encourage,” Arizmende said.
“We hear there’s so many things on the plate… Social emotional learning is the plate. If you don’t deal with that, which our current administrators do, you cannot build academic on success. But I believe that’s what we’re doing. We’re on the cusp of greatness. Please allow us to continue,” she said.
As each member of the community rose to speak, Dr. Rodriguez appeared at times almost uninterested. At one point, Lopez — who stood at the lectern with her children — paused in the middle of her statement to ask the superintendent to look at her while she addressed him.
Nor was the tension limited to members of the community.
Some of the school board’s own trustees aimed verbal barbs at the superintendent as he sat at the far end of the dais.
Shortly after the public forum concluded, Trustee Fernando Torres directed his attention to Rodriguez, seeking to learn more about the process the superintendent had used to determine which campus administrators to reassign.
Rodriguez had previously told the board he had based his decisions on the Texas Principal Evaluation & Support System, or T-PESS. But Torres argued that the T-PESS is a self-evaluation tool meant to be used by administrators at the start of a school year in order to help set goals and receive support during the upcoming year.
As Torres tried to question Rodriguez about it, the superintendent interrupted, claiming Torres was inappropriately speaking of discussions that had occurred in executive session.
“No, I’m not discussing anything in closed session, sir. I’m asking you a question, sir,” Torres said.
“Mr. Rodriguez, I’m asking you a question and I ask that you respond to me,” he added.
Torres further attempted to ascertain whether the superintendent had conducted the evaluations or if he had used the campus administrators’ own admissions of areas in need of improvement against them.
“My question would be if anyone had gave themselves a perfect score, were they promoted?” Torres asked.
Torres and Trustee Juan Jose “J.J.” Ybarra both joined the group of parents who had gathered prior to the meeting. Though Ybarra declined to comment on the matter, Torres said he felt the reassignments were politically motivated.
“I think that the superintendent is leaning toward certain board members and I think that’s a sad situation because of the fact that we’re a team. We’re supposed to … make a decision based on facts and not on feelings,” Torres said prior to the meeting.
“I’m hoping that the other board members that supported this move see light and see that this is not the correct way to do these things,” he added a moment later.
Back in the boardroom, Torres pressed Rodriguez with his questions over T-PESS before saying the board could continue the discussion in closed session.
When they emerged an hour later, rather than offer clarity on the issue, the trustees instead turned their attention to the rest of the meeting agenda — at least until they arrived at an item regarding communications between district employees and trustees.
Ybarra said he placed the item on the agenda after learning that Rodriguez had allegedly tried to dissuade district employees from speaking to the school board.
“It has come to my attention that the superintendent of schools continues to tell employees that they are not allowed to voice their concerns to the school board,” Ybarra said, reading from a statement.
“This is in violation of a TCTA-initiated law that provides that the school district employment policies may not restrict the ability of a district employee to communicate directly with a school board member on matters relating to the district’s operation,” he said.
Indeed, as parents gathered in the Walmart parking lot prior to the meeting, several RCR staffers could be seen among the crowd. But they declined to comment. Lopez, one of the RCR parents, said it was because district employees feared retaliation for voicing concerns.
Ybarra went on to talk about how restricting such communications could impinge upon employees’ constitutional rights and assured the community that he would listen to their concerns.
“Now that we all know the rules, employees, if you have any concerns, feel free to call me,” Ybarra said.
“If this happens to happen again, please feel free to call me and I promise you there will be repercussions if it continues,” he added.
Just after the meeting adjourned, a parent spoke out from the crowd, asking what would happen to Olivares and RCR. A trustee said the issue would need to be revisited at a future meeting since it had not been a part of Wednesday’s agenda.
Speaking after the meeting, Rodriguez thanked the community for sharing their comments, but declined to offer much detail about his administrative reassignment decisions.
“The community came out to support their principal and I’m happy that they came out. I always love to hear from our constituents and our parents and families,” Rodriguez said.
He added that he had not yet decided where to reassign Olivares, only saying, “It’s in the best interest of the district.”