La Joya school board to resist state interventions

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

Politics flared explosively at a La Joya school board meeting Monday night before trustees voted 4-3 to oppose the Texas Education Agency’s recommendation to install a board of managers at the district following rampant corruption.

Tensions were high. Allegations flew. Rival crowds in the audience frequently shouted and clapped when trustees made a comment they supported, occasionally necessitating a little gavel tapping.

A majority of trustees said a board of managers is a step too far for the state to take, and laid blame for severe intervention on what they described as a political sabotage by a minority faction on the board embittered by the loss of the majority in November.

Trustees in the minority denied that characterization, and said that Monday’s sometimes unruly meeting was even more evidence that significant state intervention is warranted to address what they describe as an ongoing culture of cronyism.

“The political culture in this district is such that it has to change,” Trustee Roberto Zamora said.

A federal probe last year resulted in the arrests of two former board trustees and three administrators, which prompted the TEA investigation and report that preceded the agency’s recommendation last week to intervene.

In December, staring down the barrel of that investigation, trustees voted to invite the agency to send a monitor or conservator to the district, which would have been a less severe measure than a board of managers.

A majority of trustees said Monday a board of managers is too severe of a measure, one that’s unfair to community members. They said that corruption has been addressed or is being addressed, and that the district can work with TEA guidance in a capacity that falls short of putting in a board of managers.

“If there’s things that we can do on our end to change things that went wrong, let’s fix them,” Board President Alex Cantu said. “But I’m not opposed — nobody up here I think is opposed to working with TEA.”

Tensions were high. Allegations flew. Rival crowds in the audience frequently shouted and clapped when trustees made a comment they supported, occasionally necessitating a little gavel tapping.

A shift in power after the November elections, members of the majority said, caused former board President Alda Benavides to lose sway and preceded her cooperation with the TEA.

“What is not fair is that we did not ask for TEA intervention when we bought the waterpark. We didn’t ask for TEA intervention when we bought the golf course. We didn’t ask for TEA intervention when we had when board members convicted,” Trustee Anthony Uresti said. “But all of the sudden, the majority changes, then all of the sudden ‘Come, come take over.’ That is not fair to our community, that is not fair.”

In an unusual twist, Cantu requested a recording of Benavides speaking to a state representative about RGV Redlight be played, and it was.

Attorney Jerry Munoz said a witness has since made comments contradicting her testimony.

Benavides scoffed at those allegations.

“If I was in the majority right now, I would still approve for the Texas Education Agency to come and help us, in whatever capacity they feel they need to help us. In whatever capacity they feel is necessary,” she said.

Munoz, replying to a comment made by Zamora, echoed that political vengeance narrative.

“The district has had no less than five trustees in its history … get in trouble with the law. And ironically, the pleas for intervention did not happen until after the November 2022 elections,” he said. “History speaks for itself, Dr. Zamora.”

The corruption scandals prompted trainings and mitigation efforts last year meant to reform the district, and the district managed to avoid any more high-profile arrests in the latter part of 2022.

More recently, however, faultlines pointing to some instability have once again reappeared. The board hastily replaced former Superintendent Gisela Saenz last month. A staffing adjustment plan meant to address a dire financial situation proved controversial this semester and did not go as planned.

Gisela Saenz is seen in this 2019 photo. (Courtesy: La Joya ISD/Facebook)

The district replaced its police chief last week with an interim, and has not commented on what the chief’s current employment status is.

Benavides and Zamora said Tuesday that the district has issues that remain unaddressed. No members of the minority faction on the board have officially received the TEA report from the district, Zamora said.

Benavides tossed out a more incendiary claim: she alleged that the staffing adjustment plan, which included layoffs, was drawn up politically. She said some employees were “protected” and others “not protected” while the district looked for positions to close.

“It’s time,” Zamora said about intervention. “When we have a board of managers, a board of managers is not going to be somebody that they send from somewhere else. The majority of the board of managers will be people from within the district, that perhaps will think differently than what has been going on.”

Reform, Cantu insisted, can be affected without a board of managers, though he acknowledged problems at the district in the past.

“We saw that. We saw that, and that’s why things are gonna change now. Just give us an opportunity,” he said.

Zamora was unconvinced.

“I’ve been hearing that for ages, sir,” he replied.

Cantu’s vote gave the motion resisting intervention the number it needed to pass. In a public comment before the vote, La Joya AFT President Brenda Lee Salinas called for him to abstain.

The TEA’s report raised concerns about Cantu’s failure to properly disclose a conflict of interest.

“He therefore has a conflict of interest, and he therefore should recuse himself from voting on this matter,” she told the board. “La Joya AFT does not believe that it makes sense for you to fight TEA’s recommendation.”

After the meeting, Zamora said he agrees with that sentiment, and that the part of the report related to Cantu did not receive appropriate attention Tuesday.

“In this matter, it would have been better for Mr. Cantu to abstain to avoid the appearance of impropriety, even if none exists,” he said.