INTERVIEW by BRAD ROLLINS
Despite City Hall’s traditionally limited oversight in the school system, Guerrero says the challenges of preparing high school graduates for life and work — and helping adults learn new skills as times change — are the cornerstone of the city’s future.
As he did before announcing his mayoral intentions in 2010, Guerrero sat down first with the San Marcos Mercury to talk about his record and the road ahead.
San Marcos Mercury: You’re running for a second term as mayor of San Marcos. What’s this race going to be about?
Mayor Daniel Guerrero: I just feel that we had a successful two years. One of the things I’ve always seen as important for any organization is continuity of leadership. We have a really good blend on the council right now. We’re working together through a lot of diversity of opinions and I think that’s valuable for the community. We have a great city staff that’s really focused and experiencing a rejuvenated sense of spirit. So I just want to continue all that.
Mercury: In your term, the votes that have kind of dominated public dialogue tend to be related to development, the growing pains of a city that’s changing. I don’t think many people would say your record, on the whole, is anti-development but you have voted against some of the controversial re-zonings, etc. that really took on kind of a symbolically larger role than the particular development itself. [Guerrero cast votes against rezoning the Weatherford tract for The Retreat and property on Sessom Drive where a developer wants to build other luxury student apartments.]
What’s your approach been on these? Where are these growth issues headed?
Guerrero: I think the main thing that we’ve really done is trying to be as open as possible. I think what John Thomaides and Open San Marcos has done in terms of encouraging a culture of transparency and disclosure is at the heart of how we’ve handled these issues.
Specifically, with some of the issues that we have with zoning, with development, probably the main thing is that we just try to be as respectful as possible of all the perspectives out there. We try to be respectful of property owners, of the neighbors, of community organizations, of the development community. We have different ways of looking at these issues at times but I think my role as mayor is to facilitate a conversation. We want to make sure everyone has an opportunity to be heard.
I think we have to tackle all of those underlying challenges and issues before we have a significant impact on some of those other issues like increasing our median income, like improving infrastructure and roadways. There are a lot of things where I feel that if we’re able to start making incremental adjustments and and progress, we’ll start seeing improvement in the business community, enhancing our tax base, equipping our workforce with a greater set of transferable skills.
Mercury: Many of those economic and workforce issues tie in with education and the San Marcos City Council doesn’t have much to do, directly, with education. Do you think coordination and cooperation between the city and San Marcos CISD and between the city and Texas State are improving in a real, practical way?
Guerrero: You know a big piece of that is all the changes in leadership we saw in our institutions in 2010. You had [City Manager] Jim Nuse just starting. You had [Superintendent] Mark Eads coming in, [Chamber of Commerce executive director] Brian Bondy coming in, a new state representative and commissioners court. There were changes at the hospital and university, as well. But I think we’re really establishing those connections and partnership.
The university is a big part of the reason we’re having the challenges and struggles we’re experiencing. Do they bring a lot of benefits? Sure they do. But it also brings challenges when you’re looking at the sizeable growth that they have experienced, and the community has experienced, for the last 10 years. We have to be willing to talk about it and willing to find opportunities to partner and share data. You’ve got a university that’s been growing and a community that’s trying to catch up form a public safety perspective, an infrastructure perspective.
That’s another good reason why it’s important to have continuity in the mayor’s role, to keep those relationships in tact.
There are people who care most about jobs and economic development or neighborhoods or the environment but, for me, in my upbringing, my profession and my passion has always been in education. Education is close to me. I come from a family of educators. I’m involved in education to this day. I’m an advocate for continuing ed and learning communities and to see the conversation really kind of be picked up throughout the community about the importance of education in San Marcos. I’m not just talking about education for children. I’m talking about education for adults who want to grow and add to their own skills and knowledge.
Mercury: But the city doesn’t have a big formal role in terms of education. Is it just your place to raise awareness of the subject? Is this just a bully pulpit thing?
Guerrero: I think we’ve been learning what that role is as we’ve gone along. As a municipality, we build roads, we pick up people’s garbage, we make sure the lights and water stay on. Those are our core roles. But we can also serve as a catalyst for conversation.
We brought together a core group of stakeholders, what we call the Core 4, which is being led by [Texas State President] Denise Trauth. We’ve been having conversations with the county, with the school district, with the university, with experts, with teachers and principals. And we’ve been asking, “What are your needs? What is it that we’re doing now that we could do better?”
And we’ve finally come to the point where we’ve decided that we want to focus on early childhood education and we want to focus on literacy. We called in the head of the Head Start in San Marcos CISD and asked him how many kids he’s serving right now. He gave us a number and we’re talking somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 to 400 kids. We asked, “If every kid who needs pre-K were able to enroll, how many kids would you be serving?” And the answer is thousands. We can’t afford it. We don’t have the personnel. We don’t have the space.
So everyone at the table is looking at how do we get where we need to be in terms of early childhood education. The university comes and says, “We’re now a Hispanic Serving Institution. The majority of the school district is made up of hispanic students. We can pursue a grant on behalf of the school district because in the end, that helps the university.” There may be someone else who has an idea about the space needs. So the answers start to come together out of these conversations.
Here’s another example. We should have more education majors from Texas State working in the school district as student teachers. We should have more education majors from Texas State choosing San Marcos schools as the place where they want to work upon their graduation. We don’t. So just bringing these subjects is helping us arrive at solutions.
And here’s another big one. Right now, we have a permanent program in place at Texas State in which San Marcos CISD students whose parents have a household income of $30,000 a year or less and if they meet the enrollment criteria for the university, they can go to Texas State for free for four years. We’ve currently got 10 students taking advantage of that, maybe 12.
Mercury: How can that be?
Guerrero: For one, it’s not known. I hear people talking about Bobcat Promise but there’s not enough awareness of it. Second, there’s language barrier issues when you’re talking about some households. Third, there’s uncertainty about how it works and how you get signed up.
And the fourth one, the big one, is that there are students who just aren’t academically eligible to get into Texas State University. It’s a pretty rigorous school even if people don’t realize it. The admission requirement have been enhanced significantly.
My recommendation has been that you look at a program that lets them go to ACC for two years. Every student student who graduates San Marcos High School is automatically admitted to ACC so that part is done. It simplifies things and then, when they become academically eligible to enroll after spending time at ACC, they can move over to Texas State.
That’s just an example of how we’re trying to find different ways to address the education and workforce readiness issues. I feel like these are the things we should be doing if we’re going to be able to provide greater access to opportunity for those generations that are coming forward. And it’s good, of course, for the city.
Mercury: Your passion for education reminds me of your counterpart in another corridor city. Julian Castro in San Antonio is asking voters to approve an 1/8 cent sales tax to fund pre-kindergarten programs for children four years and older in San Antonio. Are you thinking in those terms as something San Marcos might look at?
Guerrero: I think increasing funding for education is something that every mayor is looking at right now because of the different cuts that we’ve seen at the state level. We explored what Mayor Castro is doing with the sales tax initiative but we can’t do that in San Marcos. We’re capped at the maximum sales tax the city can charge.
Right now, we’re talking to the school district, saying, are there opportunities for us to share costs so we don’t duplicate services that we’re both providing, whether that’s transportation or parks and recreation facilities or what ever that might be.
Then there’s also CDBG [Community Development Block Grants the city receives from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development]. I mean, we could potentially use those community development program for different purpose that we just haven’t done, If it gives us opportunities to make some significant changes as opposed to doing the things that we’ve always done, why not give that a shot?
Mercury: Let’s talk about issues of local interest that seem like they may be coming up in the next few months prior to the elections, or may not. The first is Darren Casey’s retail/residential plans on Sessom Drive. Where is that in the process?
Guerrero: I think the neighborhoods have made some suggestions as to what they would prefer to see as opposed to what has been presented and I get the impression that they are trying to find that compromise. You see two different extremes and the answer typically is somewhere in the middle. I get the impression that multiple sides are open and talking and that’s our responsibility, to have the conversations and take a vote at some point. I don’t know when that vote will be.
Mercury: What about Cape’s Camp? The council has said it wants to look into the possibility of purchasing the riverside land. Y’all have also talked about the possibility of some kind of referendum on the ballot in November.
Guerrero: We have asked staff to bring us some specific information after reaching out to the property owners and to go about getting an appraisal on the properties. And we’ve talked about drafting some potential ballot language. What would we ask if we put this to a public vote?
Mercury: I know when the council first starting talking about an election, I was thinking bond election. But that’s not necessarily what you’re talking about is it?
Guerrero: We’re talking about a non-binding referendum. We would want citizens to tell us, ‘Should we do this?’”
Mercury: We’ve talked about Cape’s Camp policy. What about the politics? If there’s a Capes Camp question on the ballot, how do you think it impacts voter turnout?
Guerrero: You know, I haven’t thought about that until you mentioned it. Honestly. I’m not much of a politician. Rarely do I really kind of try to figure out how something plays politically.
The hardest aspect of this job is balance. It’s really difficult to find balance between being mayor versus my personal life versus my professional life versus everything else. And you just kind of get to the point where you say, “You know what? I’m just going to leave it to fate and see where things come along.”
I don’t see myself as being a career politician. I really don’t anticipate going beyond this. I’m not much of a partisan. I don’t really follow any particular ideology or party.
Mercury: You don’t think you’d like to be a county commissioner or something?
Guerrero: Not really. Debbie Gonzales Ingalsbe is my county commissioner and I love her. I think she’s doing well. That’s not what I’m looking at. I really want to shift to a place where I’m focused on my career and I have a family again.
I really want to do a good job [as mayor.] Beyond that, you know, politics is one of those things that, if I had all the aspects of my life in line already with the family and children and whatnot, then moving up might be more of a priority for me than it is now.
EDITOR’s NOTE: Questions and answers were edited, sometimes extensively, for clarity and cut down for space. In some cases, questions appear here reworked to include background and context that was not mentioned in the course of the interview. The interview was conducted on July 27.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this interview misstated the maximum family income eligible for the Bobcat Promise, the guarantee of up to $7,800 a year in free tuition and fees at Texas State University. The program is for students from households with adjusted gross incomes of $35,000 or less.