Edinburg school directors win in extra payment dispute

Farias, Garcia booted as board officers

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EDINBURG — In an about-face Friday, the Edinburg school board voted to end a campaign to terminate two directors the school district’s administration claimed should be fired over extra payments related to a payroll software rollout debacle, a decision trustees immediately followed by ousting board President Mike Farias and Vice President Letty Garcia from their officer positions.

Zelda Martinez and Margarita Oyervides, respectively the district’s payroll and personnel director, will be reinstated to the same or equivalent employment at the district promptly, which their attorney called a win.

They will be serving at a district helmed by a new lineup of board officers: Trustee Carmen Gonzalez as president, Xavier Salinas as vice president and Louie Alamia as secretary.

The termination bid appears to have dissatisfied enough board members that they felt — as one put it — a “new direction” for district leadership is warranted.

The board voted in January to propose the termination of the payroll director, Martinez, and personnel director, Oyervides, over tens of thousands of dollars in extra pay they received responding to a time-consuming payroll software switch in 2021.

District administrators testified last month that those women lacked explicit permission to receive those payments.

The directors, however, maintained that they had acted appropriately — even exceptionally — responding to that payroll crisis, testifying about others’ extra pay being authorized in a similar fashion to theirs and describing direction they received that they said justified the payments.

A Texas Education Agency hearing officer strongly sided with Martinez and Oyervides in a recommendation issued earlier this month, characterizing their efforts as “Herculean” and criticizing some of the district’s response to the situation.

The board voted Friday to adopt that recommendation, which said that the district lacked good cause to terminate the women and that they should be reinstated and made whole for any lost compensation, benefits or seniority. 

The directors’ attorney, Tony Conners, said the board’s decision is a win for his clients.

A due process hearing for two Edinburg CISD administrators accused of improperly receiving about $57,000 in extra pay concluded Wednesday, April 12, 2023. Jesse Muniz, a former consultant with the district, is pictured at the far left. (Monitor photo)

“We prevailed,” he said. “The board accepted the recommendation without any changes. So we won — so they’ll be reinstated in their former positions or comparable positions. And we hope that things will be better.”

The recommendation also said any reference to Martinez and Oyervides’ suspension or proposed termination should be expunged from their records and that the board should withdraw or correct a report to the Texas Director of Educator Investigations about them.

Martinez will be required to repay a part of the payments she received for two months of work that were miscalculated in error.

Friday’s meeting was not short on suspense and last-minute wrangling.

After an hour and a half in executive session, the board appeared ready to vote on a settlement with the directors that would have seen them retire, be paid through the end of June with one year of additional pay, given them a neutral reference from Superintendent Mario Salinas and have negative documents in their records be segregated.

A year’s pay would have come out to $108,027 for Martinez and $126,015.34 for Oyervides.

With a motion on the floor to accept the settlement, Oyervides said she’d like to be paid two years’ worth of pay instead of one.

That addition — which Conners said he was unaware of — prompted a very brief adjournment.

When the meeting resumed, Conners said both directors wanted two years of pay.

“We live in interesting times,” he said.

That settlement offer prompted some prickly discussion between Conners and Farias, which ultimately led to another closed session discussion for the board.

When trustees emerged, the board promptly voted to adopt the TEA officer’s recommendation, nixing the lucrative payouts but giving the women employment.

District counsel Kevin O’Hanlon said they’ll be back at work Tuesday.

It’s not clear in what capacity the district will employ Martinez and Oyervides; the board voted to fill their positions earlier this year. 

Superintendent Salinas declined after the meeting to take questions on the board’s decision. During testimony he described the women as essentially thieves, and said after the TEA’s recommendation that he still supported termination.

The board voted 6-0 to reinstate Martinez and Oyervides.

Letty Flores, the board’s newest member, abstained at the suggestion of Trustee Xavier Salinas.

“She was not even a part when all this took place. If we can give her the courtesy to abstain, for the record, since she was not part of this?” he said.

Flores did vote, with all but Farias and Garcia, to remove those two from the top positions in board leadership.

The audience in attendance greeted their replacement with applause, but Gonzalez, the new board president, struck a conciliatory tone.

“I can assure you, that nothing will happen in the negative. I am a senior board member, and I can assure you that every individual sitting here has the interest and the commitment to continue our focus on boys and girls in this school district,” she said, saying she felt graduation materials shouldn’t be redone to reflect the new slate of officers in reference to a monetary concern from Garcia.  

There were signs that some on the board had their minds on more significant changes.

Salinas called for the development of a board operating procedure manual and some sort of audit, which he said is common in a leadership change. 

Among other things, Salinas told The Monitor he has in mind a forensic audit of the district’s federal ESSER money — the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund — and federal programs with a fund balance review.

Alamia called the change a “new direction” for leadership, implying that new direction would include more input from more trustees.

“Some of us here on this podium lost sight of why we really ran for school board and why we were really elected by you all — the community,” he said. “And this is a wakeup call. And I promise you now that we will continue to work as a board of seven — not one, not two — a board of seven.”

Farias and Garcia were less than pleased by the way they were ousted.

The board had an opportunity to discuss settlement possibilities with Martinez and Oyervides at a regular meeting Tuesday.

The absence of trustees Alamia, Gonzalez, Salinas and Minga Vela prevented the board from making quorum, canceling that meeting and forestalling the discussion on the administrators till Friday’s special meeting — in which Alamia and Vela also requested votes on board reorganization.

Alamia told The Monitor he spent Tuesday evening out of Edinburg for work. Gonzalez, Salinas and Vela did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

Garcia said she felt “personal agendas” lay behind at least part of Friday’s meeting, which she said caused the board to lose focus on the district’s students.

“It breaks my heart, it really does,” she said.

Farias, meanwhile, said he felt the board was setting a dangerous precedent. He referenced a similar previous incident to the payroll termination debacle that did not trigger a board reorganization and noted a board majority backed terminating Martinez and Oyervides in January (Vela voted against, Salinas was absent).

According to Farias, Friday’s vote marked the first premature officer reorganization in the board’s history, which he argued was allowed but dangerous. 

“The provision does allow for the reorganization of the executive board for situations of an executive member dying, being sick, being involved in an accident, being indicted — no longer being able to serve on the board — justifies the reason for reorganizing the executive board,” he said. “But what doesn’t justify it is when us as board members can’t agree on certain things. That’s democracy.”

Editor’s note: This story and headline were updated with the final version.