A state education board member said this week that the Texas Education Agency is exploring its options regarding possibly intervening at La Joya ISD as the district faces criticism over preparing to appoint, rather than hold an election, two trustees to seats vacated by previous board members convicted of federal charges. Meanwhile, the district faces even more criticism from teachers concerned over how those convictions are impacting education.

In short, things are a mess at the school district.

The octopus-like corruption investigation related to two trustees’ convictions stretches its arms through cities and school districts and utility districts.

Trustee Oscar “Coach” Salinas pleaded guilty in federal court and resigned from the board earlier this month over threatening to cancel the district’s contract with Ruth Villarreal Insurance if he did not receive payment.

Trustee Armin Garza resigned his position in January after confessing to accepting more than a quarter-million-dollars in bribes as part of a kickback scheme related to an energy savings company involved with other elected officials in the county.

Jose Morin, the district’s former assistant superintendent of student services, pleaded guilty in February to taking bribes pertaining to energy savings contracts.

Much of the background on those convictions has been reported by the Progress Times

The ongoing scandal is a constant source of speculation about who will be the next person to join the lengthening list of Hidalgo County residents bound for the federal pen. Even conservative opinions admit that the fallout isn’t likely to end soon. 

“I don’t think that the last shoe has dropped in this situation yet,” State Board of Education Member Ruben Cortez said. “I think that this is just scratching the surface of what’s going to happen in West Hidalgo County.”

One shoe that seems primed to drop on the district is the TEA. Cortez confirmed to The Monitor on Friday that the state education agency is exploring options it may take toward intervention.

According to Cortez, the agency has three options for the district: it can bring in a monitor, bring in a conservator or bring in a board of managers.

A monitor would be the least severe of those steps; a board of managers would be the most severe.

“That means you’ll have an elected board who basically just gets sidelined by a state-appointed board,” Cortez said.

La Joya ISD marquee on March 11, 2022 in La Joya. (Delcia Lopez | [email protected])

The TEA has stepped in at other districts in the county in recent years, including the Donna and Progreso school districts.

Cortez noted that La Joya ISD is also not the only district that’s currently dealing with a board member behind bars.

“There are 21 districts, from what I’ve been told, statewide, that have had some type of situation where someone was arrested either by local, state or federal law enforcement,” Cortez said. “There are currently 21 in Texas.”

Still, Cortez described the situation at La Joya ISD as “egregious” and said he felt state intervention is warranted.

“We’ve had monitors or conservators for far less,” he said.

Cortez noted that intervention may not be swift, but if it happens, he expects it to be this year. He also commented on a more timely matter the district is facing.

La Joya ISD board members were slated to discuss appointing replacements at a meeting Wednesday for their two convicted former trustees.

That meeting was postponed because the board couldn’t make a quorum due to two absences.

Appointing trustees to those seats is proving to be a controversial topic. There’s even an online petition calling for the district to hold a special election for the seats.

“The best thing that the La Joya school board could do would be to have a special election as opposed to appointing somebody,” Cortez said. “Let the people decide democratically who represents them as opposed to an appointment of a trustee.”

State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, a frequent critic of western Hidalgo County corruption, said he too would support a special election if those seats have more than a year left on their term.

“The reason for that is they need to let the people decide,” he said. “If you allow the La Joya school board to make appointments, they’ll appoint their buddies, their friends or someone from political action who have lost the trust of the community.”

Hinojosa said the scandal unfolding in his district is disappointing and frustrating. 

Although Hinojosa said he feels it’s somewhat premature for the TEA to intervene at this point and that he isn’t aware of any imminent action, it’s not premature to talk about the possibility of an intervention.

“The situation’s still unfolding and there will be more indictments to come,” he said. “But, TEA and we at the state are watching the situation very closely. It is a culture of corruption that needs to change. Good teachers, the students are very successful, but the leadership really has failed the school district.”

LJISD School Board President Alda Benavides said Saturday that she also isn’t aware of any pending TEA intervention, but added that she wouldn’t necessarily oppose it.

“I think that we should be about improving, so if the Texas Education Agency feels that there is something that we need to do to improve our operations, I would definitely be open to it,” she said.

Benavides also said that she isn’t necessarily opposed to a special election for those two empty seats but that the board hasn’t discussed holding one. Even if the board appoints trustees there will, eventually, be an election for those seats, Benavides noted.

Other items not discussed because of the postponement of Wednesday’s meeting include discussion on Superintendent Gisela Saenz’s contract and terminating the district’s contract with Ecoletrics. The meeting would have also featured its regular public comment opportunity.

One person who wanted to take advantage of that opportunity to speak to the board was Brenda Lee Salinas, the district’s American Federation of Teachers’ president.

Salinas said she intended to voice concern about a range of issues, including mostly about teacher pay and school funds.

She told The Monitor that teachers are concerned over corruption at the highest level of the district’s leadership, especially over funding teaching and education.

“When you hear that there’s no monies available, then you hear all these allegations that now are factual, this is very disappointing and it needs to stop,” she said. “All this corruption needs to stop. This money — it belongs to our teachers. It belongs to our students. These are taxpayer monies.”

Salinas seemed reluctant to criticize her district. She loves it, she said, and thinks ultimately it’s a good place for teachers, and a good place for students.

Still, she said he and other teachers are disturbed by the misconduct on the board. Salinas, a former board member, sounded outright disgusted by the impropriety.

“They took an oath. They took an oath, for goodness sake. And I know that being a school board member is not an easy job,” she said. “But the position that I held, the oath that I took, I took it very seriously. And I did what I needed to do to make sure that our district was in good hands, and I fended for our teachers and our students and our La Joya ISD staff.”

The community, Salinas said, is concerned. They want the corruption to stop.

Salinas said she, other teachers and community members are hoping honest individuals fill those empty seats on the board. She said that she would welcome state intervention.

“TEA should come in and look into this,” she said. “And any other entity that can help our school district to stop the corruption, and that’s what our members want.”

Benavides, the school board president, addressed those concerns Saturday. She pointed to academic successes the district’s had recently.

Also, Benavides noted, a couple of individuals have been convicted — not the entire district. She encouraged people to keep the faith.

“The actions of those individuals do not reflect the actions of the people who are working to make sure all rules and regulations are followed,” she said. “You know, realistically, we cannot control the moral compass of people. But that doesn’t mean because those individuals did that that everyone is like that.”