SAN JUAN, RGV – Giving teachers and staff the opportunity to discuss radical changes to the operation of PSJA schools was democracy at work, says one of district’s trustees.

The vote on the controversial EmpowerED proposal was 661 for and 1,448 against. Of the 42 schools within the district, only seven voted in favor.

“I want to thank the community for being here,” said PSJA ISD Vice President Jesse Zambrano, as teachers and parents assembled outside PSJA High School in San Juan. Inside, the board of trustees were about to start a board meeting. However, the EmpowerED proposal championed by Superintendent Daniel P. King was not on the agenda. After such a heavy “no” vote, the board asked King not to bring it up.

“This is democracy at work. Giving the teachers the opportunity to speak up, the parents the opportunity to speak up, I believe it is true democracy at work,” Zambrano said. “As board members, we are supposed to be the representatives of the people and so we are here to do just that and to continue to promote what is best for PSJA ISD.”

Under the EmpowerED proposal, non-profits would have been brought in to help run individual schools. King said this would have allowed for more innovation and flexibility within individual school campuses. There would also have been more funding for teacher pay, he argued, at town hall meetings leading up to the vote.

The ability to partner with non-profits came about through Senate Bill 1882, which allowed non-profits to come to the aid of low-performing schools. Additional funding could have allowed an additional $906 per pupil per year. 

However, teacher unions were not impressed. They dubbed EmpowerED a “charter-lite” proposal.

“Thank you Dr. King for doing the best thing for the community and public schools,” the district’s American Federation of Teachers chapter posted on Facebook. “We look forward to working together as a district and as a community to build strong, innovative schools where teachers and employees of the district are empowered. The fight is still not over for public schools across the state but we will continue to fight for what is in the best interest of public education.”

Asked about the board of trustee meeting, PSJA VP Zambrano said: “The superintendent this morning issued a statement saying that he is not going forward with the EmpowerEd proposal that he had proposed a few weeks ago. The item has been taken off the agenda, meaning that he is not going to propose it with the school board or the commissioner of education, which is good news for us.”

Asked why it was good news not to at least discuss the outcome of the vote, Zambrano said: “It is good because the system that we have in place right now has worked for decades. The system we have in place is a system that works. There is no need to change it. Also, the proposal did not have the requisite funding that was required. You are going to go and make a lot of changes without having the funding for it. I believe that it would have created a not so good implementation of the proposal.”

Dr. King posed for photos with parents assembled outside PSJA High School. Interviewed at the time by Ron Whitlock of Ron Whitlock Reports, King said:

“Due to the overwhelming ‘no’ vote from our teachers and from the great majority of our campuses, the board is not going to support moving forward with this. It will not be presented to the board. Basically, we have had a great conversation about school funding, about equity, about teacher empowerment and a lot of other issues in terms of what is the right way to proceed with public education in the state of Texas.”

Asked why there had been such a strong “no” vote, King said some people thought PSJA could end up like some local charter schools, with no sports or fine arts available for students, and a weak Special Ed component. 

“None of those things were true. It was based on people looking at other charter schools and seeing how they operate. It was said that PSJA was going to mimic those but PSJA will always be PSJA. PSJA will always serve students of every type. PSJA will always offer a robust academic program with dual language, with early college. PSJA will always offer a variety of extra-curricula activities, whether it is our state champion theater arts program, our great athletic programs, or our great band programs. We will always have those.”

Asked by a reporter what the benefits of a charter school are, King said: “I am not going to say there are benefits. I believe our system is much better. What we were proposing was a partnership with a non-profit that would work to empower our teachers and allow us to have the funding the charter schools get. The benefit was the additional funding.”

Asked if he had spoken to those schools that voted for EmpowerED, King said: “There were those who were very eager to move forward but ultimately we live in a democracy and majority rules.”

Editor’s Note: Reporter Ena Capucion contributed to this story from San Juan, Texas.