WESLACO — School board trustees here continued to butt heads over which law firm to hire as the district’s general counsel at a special meeting Tuesday evening, ultimately voting 4-3 against approving a contract with the top-ranked firm and authorizing the administration to begin negotiations with the second-ranked firm.
A majority of the board made up of three freshmen trustees and the board president voted to terminate the district’s legal counsel of six years in December and voted against approving Walsh Gallegos Trevino Russo & Kyle PPC, the top-ranked firm, last week.
Administration will now begin negotiations with the Law Office of Eloy Sepulveda, a Weslaco-based firm which currently represents South Texas Education Technology and Horizon Montesori in Harlingen, Weslaco and Houston.
Walsh Gallegos, in contrast, represents over 500 districts.
That disparity, along with other concerns, prompted trustees Isidoro Nieto, Jaime Rodriguez and Andrew Gonzalez to unsuccessfully vote for approving a contract with Walsh Gallegos and against negotiations with Sepulveda.
Phone calls to Sepulveda’s office went unanswered Wednesday, although the lawyer did address some of those concerns at a board workshop earlier this month.
Sepulveda didn’t directly respond to a question about whether he would have to outsource work to service the district at that meeting, but he did voice his confidence in his firm’s competence.
“We know we can do the job, we’ve done the job, and we do it right and we do it well,” he said. “And we know how to do research, we know how to try cases, and we’re not afraid of anybody.”
Jacklyn Sustaita said Tuesday that she felt the district should give Sepulveda’s three-person team the chance to prove that.
“I’m for the little guy,” she said. “David and Goliath.”
If Sepulveda can’t handle the district’s needs, Sustaita argued the district could always find a replacement firm down the road. She also said she felt Sepulveda’s firm would be more accessible.
Trustee Marcos De Los Santos, who also voted in favor of authorizing negotiations with Sepulveda, said he did so primarily because he felt the district would save money by doing so. He said the district paid out $1.6 million to Jones, Galligan, Key & Lozano, the legal counsel terminated in December, over the past five and a half years.
“Every single dollar that slips through our fingers is a dollar that’s taken away from a child,” he said. “And so my job as a steward of the taxpayer dollar, a representative of the community and a voice for them, is to make sure that I critique every single contract and I look at what possibly would be the best outcome and hopefully my decision’s correct.”
Trust was the key issue for Trustee Jesse Trevino.
Trevino said in his opinion there were “too many connections” between that firm and current and previous trustees.
“I think we can all read between the lines what I’m trying to say here,” Trevino said. “There’s just too many connections there. We need somebody that’s gonna operate on even ground and that’s gonna be even with everyone.”
Sepulveda’s law firm likely has its own connections, Trustee Rodriguez countered.
“Everybody’s got connections. Small town,” he said. “Everybody knows each other, so why not go with the most qualified, people we know know school law?”
An obvious one of those is Sepulveda’s brother, Robert Sepulveda, a former trustee on the board who lost to Andrew Gonzalez in 2014 after a long tenure serving the district.
Gonzalez voted against negotiating with Eloy Sepulveda’s firm Tuesday, questioning whether the law office would be able to meet the district’s needs and noting other concerns he’d picked up on in the application process.
“They have no insurance, whatsoever, and I cannot believe a law firm that is going to represent our school district has no insurance — unless they get the contract,” he said. “That’s a red flag. Sorry.”
Gonzalez also said he didn’t understand how anyone could be so sure Sepulveda would be a cost-saving option because the only applicant to submit their fee was Walsh Gallegos.
“Firm number two and firm number three, they didn’t put their price,” he said. “We really don’t know what cost is going to be for firm number two, aside from the work that he may have to go out.”
Although Nieto voted against the majority, he struck a conciliatory note. Noting that with the majority the faction will be able to move the district whichever way it pleases, Nieto expressed his faith in the process and noted the importance of the decision the board is making.
“We have a monumental task to get through a school year working through situations that we’ve never been through before,” he said.