By Robert J. Pohl
San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro and two Democratic members of the Texas House are backing an SAISD school board candidate who leads a financially and academically struggling charter school, supports educational vouchers for the state, and shares a history with one of SA’s most controversial conservative advocates.
Joy McGhee is the well-connected president of the board that governs the “academically unacceptable” School of Excellence in Education. Based on a Texas Education Agency’s audit, McGhee’s charter school received an accreditation status of “Accredited-Warned”—meaning, the “charter [school] exhibits deficiencies in performance that, if not addressed, will lead to probation or revocation of the charter’s accreditation status,” according to a letter addressed to parents on the school’s website.
McGhee, a District 2 candidate for the San Antonio Independent School District, supports the controversial idea of a voucher program that would allow students to receive taxpayer money to attend private schools. Unlike public schools, private schools are not accountable to the public through school board elections.
State Representatives Ruth McClendon (D-San Antonio), Mike Villarreal (D-San Antonio), and Mayor Castro all endorsed McGhee instead of SAISD Board President James Howard, her lone opponent. The endorsements came despite the Texas Democratic Party’s stated opposition to a voucher program, which party leadership warns would “siphon off limited public education funds for inequitable, unaccountable voucher and privatization schemes.” McGhee also voted as a Republican in the 2004 primary and worked for multimillionaire, Republican-funding James Leininger.
Leininger, one of the richest people in San Antonio and the state (he’s worth at least $300 million), has funded nonprofits and political candidates (most of whom win) who oppose honest sex education. Leininger-supported elected officials and nonprofits have supported what many consider anti-enlightened standards for Texas textbooks, restricted legal recourse for consumers and employees, and opposed gay rights, women’s rights, and unions.
Jaime Castillo, Castro’s spokesperson, said that the mayor believes, considering SAISD’s academically unacceptable status (a designation from the TEA), that many of the long-serving SAISD board members should be replaced. But Castillo also said that Castro is just now becoming aware of some of McGhee’s history and positions. “Obviously we didn’t turn over every stone,” he said.
McGhee and McClendon failed to return calls for comment. Villarreal, who has a child attending SAISD, said that more parents should be on SAISD’s school board. Villarreal endorses McGhee because she has children who attend SASID and because she is “committed to changing the direction of student performance at SAISD.”
Texas legislators do not support a voucher program, which was tried and failed, according to Villarreal, so McGhee’s support of vouchers has no bearing on Villarreal’s endorsement: “Certainly the Texas Legislature is not going to give a school district the authority to create its own voucher program.” Villarreal also endorses McGhee because he believes that “change is needed.” He mentioned that SAISD has been academically unacceptable for two years. When asked if McGhee’s possible relationship with Leininger caused him any concern, Villarreal emphasized that he believes new leadership is needed at SAISD and implied that any ideological or philosophical similarities between Leininger and McGhee are irrelevant to most voters: “What’s most important to me is what’s happening in the classroom. And I think that’s shared by most parents.”
A relationship with Leininger would likely have developed when McGhee went to work for Leininger’s holding company, Mission City Management, which manages Leininger’s stocks and companies. McGhee worked for MCM for more than seven years, according to her website. King’s Glory Enterprises, McGhee’s company (which still shares voice mail with Mission City Management), provides services for telecommunication systems and operates out of the same office building located at 8122 Datapoint Drive from which at least five of Leininger’s enterprises are run: Kinetic Concepts International, Promised Land Dairy, the Justice Foundation, Rehabilitation and Recovery Inc., and Mission City Management.
Leininger owns, founded, funded, or has considerable stock in the following, non-exhaustive list of nonprofits and businesses: the Justice Foundation (the litigation-oriented, conservative nonprofit that is working to repeal Congress’ healthcare reform law), the Texas Public Policy Foundation (a think tank largely responsible for the private school voucher movement in Texas in the ’90s and the defeat of light rail in SA), Promised Land Dairy (a producer of ice cream and milk; the milk containers have biblical passages on them), Focus Direct Inc. (Leininger’s direct mail firm for political candidates), Kinetic Concepts International (a company that Leininger bought that sells medical beds for immobile patients, though the beds have a history of malfunctioning and causing injury and litigation), Mission City Management (the holding company for all of Leininger’s non-KCI businesses), Sunday House (maker and marketer of smoked turkeys), Texans for Governmental Integrity (known to send out libelous campaign attack ads), the Heidi Group (another group known to send out libelous political fliers), and Texans for Justice (largely responsible for conservatives winning four out of six Texas Supreme Court seats in 1988, which resulted in such a pro-business judiciary that CBS News’ 60 Minutes reported that businesses and doctors’ political contributions, as opposed to plaintiff lawyers’ contributions, now seriously influence justices’ decisions).
According to Investigative Reporter Brian Collister with News 4 WOAI, School of Excellence board members ignored information showing that former superintendent Ricky Hooker was misusing taxpayers’ money. “Hooker was fired by the board last June,” Collister reported, “the same board members who turned a blind eye to his misspending despite complaints from some within the district. Now the TEA should look at canning the school board members that allowed the School of Excellence to fail taxpayers and students.” The TEA subsequently confirmed that Hooker used a School of Excellence credit card to pay for personal expenses and airline tickets for himself and his wife.
Tommy Calvert, son of T.C. Calvert, was the public relations consultant for the School of Excellence until recently. McGhee will soon serve on the board of directors for Calvert’s radio station KROV (K-Restore Our Voice), according to Calvert. (McGhee’s bio on her company’s website states that she is already a board member.) Meanwhile, T.C. Calvert (co-founder of San Antonio’s MLK March, supporter of the Free Speech Coalition’s lawsuit against SA’s anti-demonstration ordinance, and community activist) is supporting incumbent James Howard, who has served SAISD since 1998.
As parents of the 55,000 students attending SAISD consider who warrants their votes, McGhee’s ideological (and physical) proximity to Leininger, a man whose political contributions to Republican candidates in Texas have exceeded all others during multiple election cycles (Leininger’s political contributions to Texas Republicans and conservative nonprofits total in the tens of millions), are worth considering. Let’s hope that SAISD parents think about the consequences of having a SAISD board member who also serves on the board of a charter school that would benefit financially from students leaving SAISD for the not-so-excellent School of Excellence, (the largest private charter school in SA), and who would facilitate diminishing SAISD’s student population with vouchers if the opportunity arose.