LA VILLA — It’s sad when children look adults squarely in the face — especially elected officials — and tell them that they are disappointed in them.
But that’s exactly what happened several times on Wednesday night during a meeting of the La Villa City Commission that drew hundreds of angry residents, parents, grandparents, teachers, school administrators and students who repeatedly told the commission that they are mad and disgusted by the city’s decision to cut off water to the three school campuses over a water payment dispute.
This dispute threatens schools from opening on Monday — the day students are to return from Christmas break. And it could fracture this tight-knit community, as La Villa ISD Superintendent Narciso Garcia told me “contingency plans” are being made that could include busing the district’s 650 students to schools in nearby towns like Edcouch, Elsa and Monte Alto.
“I’m pretty embarrassed about what’s happening because there’s probably other communities and other people who are making fun of the whole idea of the water being shut down,” Guadalupe Rangel III, a senior at La Villa High School, told the commission as he stood dressed proudly in his school’s red letterman jacket during the public comment period at the start of the standing-room only meeting.
“I find it pretty embarrassing that the city has to go against the school board. That will affect us more on our futures,” La Villa High student Jose Luis Martinez told aldermen.
“It’s embarrassing also, too, ‘cause that’s a really expensive water bill to pay,” Rangel told them.
From the mouths of babes comes the obvious truth — a truth that those elected to serve the La Villa City Commission seemed loathe to hear. But it’s a truth they must face.
Nevertheless, most of the city’s four aldermen, mayor pro-tem and Mayor Hector Elizondo cast their eyes downward as they endured a 20-minute spanking from the public when speaker after speaker berated their decisions.
It’s obvious that the commission needs to do the right thing and repeal these ridiculous and duplicitous costs the city has lobbed on the school district by doubling student surcharge water rates — from $6 to $14. That is, if they are to have any hope of rectifying this situation and mending the hurt in this delta town of 1,500.
Garcia said it is unheard of for a city to charge a school district a surcharge per student for water — in addition to charging a metered usage fee. This surcharge also includes the district’s 100 employees.
What’s worse: The water for which the school district is being charged is of such poor quality that the city has been ordered by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to build a new water plant. And for the past two years, the school district has been buying bottled water for its students to drink because it tastes so bad, teacher Marlene Hinojosa told me.
I commend the district for trying to come to an agreement with city officials and I sympathize with Superintendent Garcia, who told me he regretted the contract that he and the district signed with the city of La Villa at the Hidalgo County Courthouse in September 2012 agreeing to the $6 per head surcharge.
The crisis came to a head recently when the city upped the surcharge to $14 per head. The district refused to pay and the city claimed it owed $55,000 in back fees and then suddenly cut off water to campuses during the Christmas break.
On Wednesday night, Mayor Elizondo made an impassioned plea to the angry crowd, explaining that the surcharge increase is needed revenue if the city is to build a new water treatment plant, which could cost $6 million.
“We’re going to have to do it. If we don’t do it there’s not going to be a city or a school district or anything,” Elizondo said from the dais.
He then turned to the superintendent and offered to lower the surcharge to $10 per head and waive all back fees — to which the crowd angrily groaned, shook their heads and yelled that it’s his fault for not planning better.
“We want the schools to open. We don’t want to hurt kids,” pleaded Elizondo to a response of cold stares.
Garcia told him the school board will meet at 8 p.m. on Saturday (at City Hall because their high school has no water) to discuss the offer. However he told me later: “It’s still excessive.”
He added that the TCEQ has sent letters to the district and city informing them of a TCEQ hearing on the issue to be held Wednesday in Austin.
Nevertheless, that doesn’t help La Villa families fretting this weekend over whether, where or when children will return to classes.
“It is sad, sad to know that you all have closed the doors on hundreds of kids from our own community,” Hinojosa, a mother of three, told the council.
The audience erupted in a standing ovation after Hinojosa laid bare what truly is at stake here:
“My kids are at home asking themselves ‘What’s going to happen?’ ‘Where am I going to go?’ ‘How am I going to adjust?’ Those are questions that kids should not be asking,” she said. “Because we are the adults here. We are supposed to protect, help and support them, not do this to them.”
Innocence shattered was reflected in the red-rimmed eyes of 17-year-old La Villa High junior Clarissa de Leon who after the meeting appeared to have succumbed to emotions. Just an hour prior, this president of the school’s National Honor Society had been so eloquent and composed telling the commission: “We would just like you to give us a chance, whatever it is, to resolve this as soon as possible because not only is this affecting how much we have retained so far but how much we are studying and how far we will go in the future. Just remember that we try our hardest, not only us, as students, but our teachers and the administration and everybody that works so hard for the school district. It is part of who we are and we’re hoping you don’t just take it away from us.”
Absolute truth from the mouths of babes.
Sandra Sanchez is Opinion editor for The Monitor. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (956) 683-4461.