Mercedes school board won’t give superintendent power to relieve staff shortage

MERCEDES — School board trustees here Wednesday shot down a prospective local policy amendment that would have given the district’s superintendent more hiring autonomy in light of a personnel shortage. Many of those trustees voiced concerns over fears of nepotism.

The district’s current policy grants the board final authority for the employment of contractual and non-contractual personnel. 

The revisions requested by Mercedes Independent School District Superintendent Carolyn Mendiola would have given the superintendent the final authority for contractual personnel from June 1 to Aug. 31, along with the final authority to employ and dismiss non-contractual personnel.

It also would have required the superintendent to inform the board of any hires made under that authority.

Mendiola told the board that hires made under the amendment would still undergo background checks and checks for certifications, and ultimately be qualified candidates.

The amendment, she said, is a necessary step to address a serious personnel shortage, presenting a list of 27 vacancies, most of them teaching positions.

“We only have 12 bus drivers at this time, so we are in dire need of additional bus drivers as well,” she said. “So it’s actually more than 27 positions that are open at this time and by the board granting me this authority to be able to hire during the summer, we will try to ensure that we have the quality staff that we need for our students, for our district.”

To illustrate her point, Mendiola brought up a meeting late last month that was canceled because the board failed to make a quorum. The board was supposed to review two applicants that night, she said, applicants who have since signed on with other districts.

Even if enough manage to attend online or in-person, Mendiola said meetings require a team of district employees that can be hard to wrangle up because of summer vacations.

Those arguments failed to sway the board. Most of them cited concerns over past nepotism in the district, saying the amendment would place power in Mendiola’s hands that should really be in the hands of the board.

“To tell you the truth on this one here, it’s just a gut instinct, but with the gut instinct comes prior experiences and situations that we had in Mercedes,” Trustee Oscar Hernandez said. “This is not a reflection of Ms. Mendiola at all; however, it is my experience.”

Hernandez claims he’s seen superintendents abuse their power in the district. Declining to name which former superintendent he was talking about, he referenced board members’ mothers and brothers and cousins being hired by the district, and said the amendment would open the “floodgates” to nepotism.

“The way I read it, that’s a heck of a lot of authority there,” he said.

No one disputed nepotism being a problem at the district in the past, and trustees Pete Martinez III and Lucy Delgado both said they agreed with Hernandez, citing concerns over favoritism and a desire for strong board oversight.

“There is concern,” Delgado said, noting that she had no specific concerns about Mendiola. “And I’m sorry, but a lot has been done over the years, that it’s kind of hard to trust that those good decisions are going to be made and that we’re going to bring in quality. To allow people to come in from the outside, and not just the ‘who’s who.’”

Trustees opposing the amendment also brushed off concerns over not reaching a quorum in the future. An agenda technicality had prevented the board from meeting online in June, Martinez said, a problem that could be avoided in the future.

Board President Rachel Treviño was the amendment’s sole supporter, although she ultimately joined other trustees in voting against it. Treviño said the district was a changed place and free of the nepotism that affected it four or five years ago. The amendment was a temporary provision, she said, and if the hiring policy was abused the board would be able to hold Mendiola accountable

“We need to focus forward. Guys, I know that things have happened in the past, things have happened with other administrators, with other leaders that we’ve had,” Trevino said. “But that’s not what’s going on now, and we know that’s not what’s going on now.”

The results of killing the amendment? According to Mendiola, they could be significant.

She said it will get harder to get quality staff as the summer proceeds, and that if the district hires non-bilingual certified teachers and non-ESL certified teachers, it would be required to apply for an exception with the state, which would eat up state funds that would be needed for professional development.

If the district doesn’t find enough teachers, Mendiola said, students may very well find themselves learning from substitutes on their first day of class in August.

“We’re going to find ourselves in a bind. And as I mentioned, this is in the best interest of students, best interest of our district. I certainly can understand the concerns from prior administration and what occurred in prior administration; I’m only here to ensure that we have quality staff within Mercedes ISD. Quality staff.”

View the full special board meeting below: