Board President Cantu in the spotlight at La Joya TEA hearing

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Alejandro “Alex” Cantu

Current La Joya ISD Board President Alex Cantu found himself — along with $271,525 in nonprofit money he could scarcely remember earning — very much in the spotlight at a hearing Monday that could determine whether the Texas Education Agency appoints a board of managers at the school district.

The TEA recommended appointing a board of managers earlier this summer after a special investigation.

The district chose to resist intervention and a judge considered testimony called by both sides at Monday’s hearing.

The hearing focused on the two central allegations included in the TEA’s investigation report, one being that the district’s board failed to prevent five now-convicted former board trustees and administrators from defrauding the district in three distinct schemes.

The second allegation is that former employees, and former and current trustees, failed to complete conflict of interest forms — among them Cantu, who was paid as a consultant by nonprofit organization RGV Read and Feed.

“This organization, on its face, was to provide food to the children of La Joya ISD,” TEA attorney Matthew Tiffee said in his opening statement. “However, the evidence will show that Board President Alex Cantu’s wife was on Read and Feed’s board and that the current board president received a quarter of a million dollars in unexplained consulting fees. A quarter of a million dollars in federal funds reserved for feeding the hungry children of LJISD. And so the evidence will show that the corruption was present in the past and exists in the present.”

Tiffee said the agency’s governance division recommended intervention because “it’s unwilling to wait until another round of indictments are handed down and further funds reserved for the children and families of La Joya ISD have been lost.”

TEA witnesses presented testimony that Cantu made $271,525 working for RGV Read and Feed in 2018 and 2019 while also serving on the school board.

That program, which had a memorandum of understanding with La Joya ISD from 2017 to 2019, was essentially billed as an afterschool meal program.

According to the TEA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture funded Read and Feed through the Texas Department of Agriculture.

Cantu, however, said he couldn’t recall how much the nonprofit paid him or whether that amount exceeded $100,000.

Texas Education Agency Deputy Commissioner of Governance Steve Lecholop speaking Monday, July 31, 2023, about potential state intervention at La Joya ISD. (Monitor Photo)

In fact, he couldn’t recall a single specific thing he did for the organization during that time.

“The thing is that it’s been a long time,” Cantu said. “And I — there was a lot of logistics to prepare and to make sure that everything was done in compliance with TEA regulations and USDA. So there was a lot of work involved in the process.”

Cantu said legal counsel at first told him he didn’t need to sign a disclosure for his work with the group, but that he promptly filed a conflict of interest form after legal counsel told him to.

He could not recall the duties of his wife, Victoria Cantu, at the organization. She was paid significant sums for serving as a director at the nonprofit, TEA witnesses testified. Cantu also failed to remember having any conversations with Alex Guajardo about Read and Feed.

Guajardo, who confessed in 2022 to bribery related to one of three illicit schemes the TEA identified, served as CEO of Read and Feed and also made significant sums of money from the organization, according to agency witnesses.

David Rodriguez, executive director of investigations for TEA, testified that administrative costs Read and Feed accounted for as much as 48-50% of its expenses.

“Well, It’s concerning because administrative costs usually target around 5 to 10%,” he said, citing previous investigations regarding nonprofits.

Ashley Jernigan, TEA’s associate commissioner for governance, compliance and investigations, testified that there are concerns about ongoing misconduct of Cantu.

“But additionally, it is my understanding that there are criminal investigations open related to trustee Cantu,” she said.

John Scott, the district’s legal counsel, devoted the majority of his time during the hearing to asking TEA witnesses about the minutiae of their investigation, focusing particularly on steps personnel didn’t take in the investigation, gaps in their knowledge about specifics related to events surrounding some of the allegations and the timeline of the investigation.

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

“For whatever reason, the Texas Education Agency has looked at some old, old acts…And what we’re looking at is something that took place six years ago, in many occasions — some more recent,” he said. “But … this school district is amazing. The people who work here are amazing.”

Cantu, for his part, largely echoed the district’s public stance about intervention in recent months, testifying that La Joya ISD is moving toward more transparency and community involvement.

He testified that administration, rather than the board, should have ensured financial controls were being adhered to during the variety of illicit schemes.

“Well, right now we’re going in the right direction,” Cantu said. “I think that the new superintendent is doing a good job. I think that we’re being very careful and cautious with a lot of the issues that have happened in the past. I know that we’ve put in place certain things in our new policies and procedures, and I know that we’ve been working very closely with Region One.”

Attorneys are expected to submit their closing arguments in writing in early September.

Administrative Law Judge Vasu Behara said he expects to deliver findings of fact and conclusions of law to the TEA by early October.

Here’s the latest update: 

La Joya ISD accuses TEA witnesses of providing ‘unfounded’ and ‘false’ testimony