This San Antonio teen went from taking tests to shaping his school district’s future in just a year

One of San Antonio’s school board members celebrated his 19th birthday a few months ago. Unlike many elected offices, there is no minimum age to run for school board in Texas. The only requirement is that candidates be old enough to vote when they take office.

By Camille Phillips, Texas Public RadioJanuary 23, 2023 9:57 am, ,

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This time last year, Michael Valdez was a senior at Edgewood Fine Arts Academy on San Antonio’s West Side.

In June, he crossed the stage to accept his diploma. By November, he was sworn in to his first elected office, becoming one of the seven trustees tasked with leading the district from which he had just graduated.

Unlike many elected offices, there is no minimum age to run for school board in Texas. The only requirement is that candidates be old enough to vote when they take office.

“I always was interested in local governance. One of the great ways you can make a difference is being involved in local governance,” said Valdez, 19.

He previously served on several teen advisory boards, including the city of San Antonio’s Youth Commission. He recently started his second semester at San Antonio College, where he plans to study public administration.

School board members have a lot of responsibility — they’re in charge of overseeing the district’s superintendent and deciding how to spend the budget.

But Valdez said he’s not intimidated because he’s not making those decisions on his own.

“I’m learning that we’re a team of eight, the seven trustees plus the superintendent working together to make the decisions for our community and our students,” said Valdez, referencing a popular phrase from Texas’s Lone Star Governance training for school board members.

He sees his youth as an asset: He knows what students need because he’s been in the Edgewood school district since preschool.

“San Antonio is my home where I reside. It’s very important to me that even as young as I am, I can make a difference. Inspire others,” Valdez said.

Edgewood Fine Arts Academy Theatre Arts Director Claudia Casso was Valdez’s teacher all four years of high school. He also served as the stage manager for the school’s acting company all four years.

“He was always very productive and dependable,” Casso said. “Even before I could think of something he always already knew what to do.”

Casso said Valdez told her he was thinking of becoming a trustee starting in his junior or senior year.

““He’s always been a champion of the community,” Casso said. “And I feel like he, there’s so much more that he’s going to accomplish. This is just the first steps of his journey.”

Valdez is more than a decade younger than the next youngest trustee, 30-year-old James Hernandez. The other Edgewood ISD trustees are retired or getting closer to it.

Hernandez is doctoral student at the University of Texas at San Antonio and a part-time middle school teacher at San Antonio ISD. He said anyone willing to volunteer their time and dip their toes into politics is a welcome addition to the board, especially someone who brings a fresh, young perspective.

“Just coming out of high school, his ideas, maybe his frustrations, maybe the things he saw in the community or just in society in general, you know, are different,” Hernandez said. “And that diversity, I’m going to say diversity is always a good thing.”

Hernandez said he’s taken a bit of a mentorship role with Valdez, giving him advice and checking in to make sure he’s registered for his college classes.

“Even though I’m about 10 years older than he is, it’s still a little bit closer than a lot of a lot of the other board members, with a lot more life experience than I do. And I feel like I tried to bridge that gap,” Hernandez said.

His main advice for Valdez: Learn a lot and take things in for the first year.

“When you’re governing, the roles are a little bit different, the responsibilities are different, and just start kind of understanding those differences,” Hernandez said. “Because we’re not like enforcers, we’re just the ones who set the tone.”

“We can’t think of one situation, we have to think of the entire district. And not just that, but also what we do influences our district, but may also have a ripple effect throughout the city,” Hernandez said. “When you’re in a governance or leadership position, your voice will kind of echo…. Your voice is a little bit more weighty than it was.”

Edgewood is one of San Antonio’s smaller school districts — Valdez became a trustee automatically because he was the only candidate. But it’s had an outsized impact on education in Texas. Edgewood families led the charge in a decades-long legal battle to make the state’s education funding more equitable.

After multiple lawsuits, state lawmakers reluctantly created the Robin Hood funding system to more evenly distribute property taxes between school districts.

But Valdez said as a student he still noticed inequities when he visited other schools for competitions.

“I’ve been to Seguin High School, that was a newly constructed school, and it was really beautiful. And I also went to Boerne Champion High School, which was also beautiful. New campuses that are locally funded through bonds,” Valdez said. “And it’s just a different experience — the different school districts having a growth in population and seeing where my school district is.”

When local neighborhood schools merged in the 1950s to create modern-day school districts, Edgewood’s boundaries remained about the same, following the redlined neighborhood boundaries of the West Side where old deeds did not bar Mexican Americans. That’s left Edgewood cut off from the property taxes of downtown San Antonio or more affluent residential areas, making it more difficult for them to fund renovations and other building projects through bonds.

Texas began offering a competitive state grant for instructional facilities in the 1990s, but funding for it is limited. The state legislature hasn’t allocated funding for it since 2016.

As a trustee, Valdez said he hopes to continue the fight for education equity.

Starting the fight at such an early age gives him extra time to make an impact.

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