On Monday March 27th 2023 a majority of the Harlandale ISD school board voted to close four elementary school campuses. It was an unprecedented move made in an attempt to balance the district’s books. The district blamed the massive and looming $12,000,000 budget deficit on declining enrollment due to declining birth rates, their landlocked geography and while HISD officials have not publicly pushed increased enrollment in charter schools as a cause many say it is.
Perhaps Harlandale could have weathered one of these storms, maybe even two. All three converging at once though? Officials say in order to stay afloat they simply had no other choice. They had to close then possibly repurpose Columbia Heights, Morill, Rayburn and Carroll Bell elementary schools. Their reasoning was that not taking dramatic action would have jeopardized too many jobs and endangered district finances. No one wanted to close these schools but nonetheless, as they present it, their hands were tied.
Now let’s pivot from just presenting the official narrative to pushing back on it. According to census data Harlandale had a population of 61,287 in 2010 and experienced a slight increase by 2020 to 61,681. Though the data doesn’t break down specifically how much of that overall number is made up by school age children it does give age ranges. As a percentage the amount of 0-19 year olds in the district has remained virtually constant at approximately 29%. So though birth rates and the population at large may be experiencing some decline, Harlandale stays steady.
The landlocked argument is the flimsiest and easiest to dismiss. In the last decade Harlandale has evolved from a boundary constrained to an open enrollment district. Meaning that in the past you had to live within Harlandale’s 14 square miles of excellence to enroll in it. That’s no longer the case. Today as an open enrollment district, anyone from anywhere can bring their student to study in Harlandale. So even if Harlandale cannot expand their lines on a map, they don’t need to. They just have to be willing to recruit and compete.
Government bureaucracies are like cargo ships. Tough to turn. For too long school districts had a monopoly on students living in their areas. Unless you had access to money for private or parochial schools you were all but certainly to enroll in the ISD that governed your community. Charter schools changed all that. They exploded onto the scene opening so many radically different, really attractive options for students and parents. Incentivized by the possibilities of profits, charter schools went to work recruiting students. Equipped with top shelf promotional materials, student success guarantees and innovative ideas the charters have been very successful. They were able to avoid being seen as a major threat for so long because they had to scale up. When charter schools first opened their enrollment numbers were so small that they were easy to dismiss. By the time anyone noticed they posed a threat, it was already too late. Harlandale had been hollowed out one enrollment at a time. Using the funds from each new student to go recruit even more.
Further compounding the issue has been Harlandale’s inability/unwillingness to compete for students. Charter schools are knocking on doors, tabling at events and executing data driven recruitment campaigns. Meanwhile Harlandale doesn’t even have a plan! Not for nothing but there’s also been reports of HISD central office staff sending their students to charter schools! If district leadership doesn’t believe in Harlandale, why should anyone else?
These excuses the district offered for the bad position they find themselves in don’t hold up under scrutiny. It’s clear how Harlandale got in this mess. Our leaders both elected and employed, didn’t have a plan to protect our historic Harlandale. They were so distracted with infighting, cleaning up mistakes made and keeping the conservator appeased that they didn’t have the bandwidth to put focus on the future. While there doesn’t seem to be a lot of utility to finger pointing at the moment let me make clear who is most at fault in this situation. Us.
Whether we’re talking Harlandale politicians or employees one thing is true across the board. They are all representing us. We select our leaders at the ballot box and hold them accountable by speaking our mind at meetings. Additionally we can call or email any central office employee with whatever thoughts we have about any subject. That’s not where our obligation ends though. It’s on us to make sure our leaders are representing us correctly. When they fail us, whenever you get steamed because of some bone headed decision they make. Ask yourself, what have I done (or not done) to impact this? If the answer is nothing. Then that’s exactly what we have the right to expect in return.
Has Harlandale just created a path for a backdoor charter school takeover? Are there ambitions in Austin for a multi-district San Antonio consolidated ISD? Is there any hope things can be turned around? Pick up your La Prensa next week to find out or visit us online at www.LaPrensaTexas.com.