By Berenice Garcia | The Texas Tribune

McALLEN — Certain school district employees in the Rio Grande Valley may be prohibited from holding elected office under a new proposed policy.

A state-appointed board of managers selected to oversee the La Joya Independent School District is set to consider banning employees in supervisory positions from holding elected office or from running for elected office at a meeting Thursday. The proposal is part of the district’s efforts to correct course following a slew of corruption charges against two school board trustees and three employees.

Their indictment and subsequent guilty pleas prompted an investigation by the state into further allegations of fraud within the district, which resulted in the temporary installment of the board of managers in February.

The proposed policy would restrict employees from holding an elected public office or being a candidate for such an office within Hidalgo County or any county within the state that has direct or indirect contractual relations with La Joya ISD.

If approved, the policy would apply to employees who supervise other employees or are responsible for the administration of tax dollars.

While the policy would only apply to people hired after its adoption, the contracts of current employees would be subject to non-renewal.

Neither the La Joya superintendent nor the board of manager’s president replied to multiple requests for comment.

The district, which includes the cities of La Joya, Palmview, Peñitas and Sullivan City, serves more than 24,000 students.

In the face of the federal indictments, Andrew H. Smith, a political scientist at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, acknowledged action had to be taken at La Joya ISD, but wondered if the new board might be going too far.

Smith raised the possibility that employees whose contracts are not renewed under this policy could argue a violation of their due process if there is no investigation into whether they have any link to corruption or bribery.

He also noted the policy could prevent voters from electing a candidate of their choice.

“You have this risk of restricting people’s choices,” Smith said.

State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, whose district includes the La Joya school district, said the new policy seemed standard and was optimistic it would be effective in minimizing or reducing potential conflicts of interest.

State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa speaks during a luncheon hosted by the McAllen Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023. (Dina Arevalo | The Monitor)

“La Joya ISD is one of the largest, if not the largest, school district here in the Valley which is the number one employer in the western part of Hidalgo County,” Hinojosa said. “It does create issues and conflicts that need to be addressed.”

Hinojosa attempted to address potential conflicts of interest in the past. He passed Senate Bill 814 in 2017, which prevented La Joya ISD board trustees from being hired as an employee or consultant by the Agua Special Utility District, the water supplier for residents on the west side of Hidalgo County.

“We have a lot of issues on the west part of Hidalgo County where it has caused the taxpayers on the west side of Hidalgo County millions of dollars,” Hinojosa said.

After a special investigation into the district last year, the TEA accused the district of failing to disclose conflicts of interests and of lax oversight. The investigation followed the arrests of two school board trustees and three employees of the district’s central administration who pleaded guilty to federal charges that included conspiracy, theft, bribery, wire fraud and extortion.

In the wake of the investigation’s findings, the state appointed the board of managers who were tasked with providing “the leadership needed to work towards positive change and effective governance for the district,” said Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath in a Feb. 1 letter to the district.

The state agency also appointed Marcey Sorensen, who most recently served as deputy superintendent for the Virginia Department of Education, as the new superintendent.

Reporting in the Rio Grande Valley is supported in part by the Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas.

Some South Texas school employees could be barred from holding elected office after fraud investigation” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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