While city court touts excellent relationship with NISD, emails say otherwise

NISD claims it was on receiving end of 'chilled' responses from court personnel

SAN ANTONIO – A partnership last school year between the San Antonio Municipal Court and the city's largest school district to address students skipping class was marred by frustration and months of communication lapses, according to email records obtained by the KSAT 12 Defenders.

The court, which last summer received a nearly $1.2 million grant from the Criminal Justice Division of the Texas Governor's Office to address school attendance issues, assigned six juvenile case managers to the Northside Independent School District.

Municipal Court Presiding Judge John Bull claimed the grant would help the court assist schools in approving attendance and would provide case management services to at-risk children, in a letter sent to area superintendents last August.

Before the court employees had even arrived on campuses last fall, however, NISD officials expressed concerns about the previous work of JCMs, internal district emails confirm.

"I did speak to them about the reliability issues we have had with case workers in the past," said NISD Superintendent Dr. Brian Woods via email in July, when informing district staff that the city was committed to having the six full-time case workers at NISD.

Dr. Vicky Sullivan, NISD's director of pupil personnel, wrote in June that a previous truancy pilot had its "most unsuccessful year" after the city failed to provide enough case managers at certain schools, according to NISD emails.

"While there have been other related SAMC (San Antonio Municipal Court) concerns this past school year (to include their disappointment with us for not agreeing to the 'assembly' perspective), the primary piece is that of the lack of JCM support. Simply said, the truancy pilot is (sic) cannot function, never mind succeed, without adequate JCM support," wrote Sullivan.

NISD officials declined to make Sullivan available for an interview for this story.

One major source of confusion appeared to be the JCMs' exact roles at NISD.

Woods wrote in July that he had gotten a verbal commitment from the city that the JCMs "would spend the clear majority of their time on our campuses and work largely at our direction."

However, records provided last month by the court to the Defenders show that of the eight JCMs assigned to NISD last school year, only two were assigned solely to that district.

Five others were assigned to NISD and one other district, while the final JCM was assigned to NISD, one other district and multiple charter school campuses.

Records show the JCMs were also required to spend some of their time assisting with mediation dockets at two municipal court locations.

Additionally, records show that NISD officials believed the JCMs would begin working at campuses in September, while the court was under the impression the work would not begin until mid-October.

"It is a mess," said one JCM assigned to NISD last school year who spoke with the Defenders on the condition of anonymity.

"Why are we out here if we aren't being utilized?"

The employee said that once JCMs were on campus they were unable to access NISD's attendance system and at times struggled with even getting Internet access.

An email in April from a city court supervisor to NISD officials explains that one of the JCMs was unable to connect to the Internet while on campus and needed "to have the tools necessary to perform her job."

Bull, as has been the case in past KSAT 12 Defenders stories involving municipal court, refused to take part in an interview for this story.

Juvenile Case Manager Administrator Victor Vinton did answer several questions last month after the Defenders tracked him down near city hall.

"That's a surprise to me because we've had an excellent communication with Northside," said Vinton, after the Defenders read him some of the internal NISD emails.

Records show by the end of October, JCMs had complained that they were not receiving enough work while assigned to NISD campuses.

Sullivan responded via email that JCMs were no longer the first layer of intervention when students began to accumulate unexcused absences, and that some court employees assigned to NISD were proceeding as if they were.

"I'm sure you understand that we prefer the first contact made with our students and families be that of campus & district staff, instead of court staff," wrote Sullivan in an email sent to court staff and NISD officials.

NISD's attendance office coordinator, Traci Meredith, emailed the court on January 22 that a truancy letter had been shared among the JCMs assigned to the district even though it had not been approved by the district.

"Can you please help me understand?... who approved use of this letter for NISD families?" Meredith asked.

That same day, Sullivan informed a deputy superintendent vial email that most, if not all, of the JCMs had not been seen on NISD campuses in months or weeks.

Two days later, an NISD truancy specialist revealed via email that one of the JCMs was still unfamiliar with her role.

Sullivan then wrote in an email in February that JCMs continued to complain about a low workload even though there was plenty of workload at some of the district's middle schools.

Sullivan told Woods and a deputy superintendent via email on Feb. 22 that she had reached out to Vinton to discuss the ongoing communication issues but did not expect to hear back from him.

"We, NISD, Traci and I continue to be on the receiving (end) of 'chilled' responses from all SAMC folks. While I believe you may have picked-up on this, I wanted to state it explicitly so that there is no confusion. This has been on-going for a couple of years now, mostly I believe because we elected not to participate in forums, essentially handing it over to SAMC, and not open the flood gates of truancy cases. Communication exchange is strained and pretty much non-existent. This continues to be a concern," wrote Sullivan.

Records show Vinton later got back to Sullivan, blaming his late response on a major project that took him out of the office.

Emails show that problems continued into March, when one of the JCMs was removed from Neff Middle School and told to no longer report to NISD campuses after making inappropriate, negative remarks about the district and how Neff officials were handling student absences.

City human resources records confirm that the employee resigned from the city two weeks after her removal from NISD, after working for the court for more than six years.

Records show that Bull reached out directly to Sullivan the day the employee was removed, writing in an email that he "will need to get more fully engaged as (it) relates to NISD."

Sullivan replied to Bull the following day via email that the two sides had a productive meeting.

"There has been some communication disconnect on a few different levels; however, I am now confident that we can work through this going forward," wrote Sullivan.

NISD officials have not said if the district plans to use JCMs during the upcoming school year.

City records confirm that the court has applied for the same truancy intervention and prevention grant for the upcoming school year.

The grant requests nearly $938,000 in funding, according to a grant application provided to the Defenders.

A city spokesman said the application is in the final phase of being reviewed by the governor's office.

The grant application is being reviewed as the city's second largest school district, North East ISD, confirms it is no longer filing truancy cases with municipal court.

"We did not feel the process was efficient or effective. Often times the student would not be monitored or held accountable. Our schools were not being supported and it was undermining our authority. Students would continue to skip class and face no consequences. NEISD has not utilized juvenile case managers since the 2017-2017 school year," NEISD Executive Director of Communications Aubrey Chancellor said via email.

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