TEA decision on potential takeover of La Joya ISD board looms

Only have a minute? Listen instead
Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...
La Joya ISD operations building March 11, 2022, in La Joya. (Delcia Lopez | [email protected])

The State Office of Administrative Hearings last Thursday released its findings over an appeal from the La Joya Independent School District, which stemmed from the special investigation by the Texas Education Agency.

The fate of the board, however, has yet to be decided.

The report by Chief Administrative Law Judge Kristofer S. Monson found that the two allegations made by the TEA’s special investigation met its burden of proof by a preponderance of the evidence to demonstrate the violations occurred.

The administrative law judge’s findings is that the TEA has jurisdiction over the matter. The conclusion also stated that the State Office of Administrative Hearings also has jurisdiction.

With the TEA’s final report on May 9, the agency recommended the appointment of a board of managers to replace the existing board. The agency has even been accepting applications for the potential board.

The district did not contest the TEA’s allegations, but argued that former trustees acted individually and not as a “body corporate” in the first allegation. La Joya ISD also argued that conflict of interest and disclosure requirements did not apply to the second allegation.

The district then filed an appeal which led to the hearing before the State Office of Administrative Hearings.

“We are hopeful that our endeavors, dedication and the tangible progress we’ve achieved will be recognized. Our sincere aspiration is for a decision that respects the voice of our community, upholds the integrity of elected representation, and most importantly, ensures the best interest of our students remain at the forefront,” La Joya ISD said in a Friday press release.

A decision from TEA Commissioner of Education Mike Morath is expected later this month on whether the agency will install a board of managers.

The special investigation into the district spurred from the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas’ prosecution of two former trustees and three former central office administrators for corruption occurring between 2017 and 2020.

The first allegation is on how the board lacked oversight and management for several contracts which facilitated criminal schemes.

The first was with Performance Services Incorporated, or PSI, which involved Jose Luis Morin, former assistant superintendent of Student Services; Alex Guajardo, former LJISD executive director for Student Services; and former trustee Armin Garza. The second was with Xizaka LLC with Rodrigo Lopez, LJISD’s asset management administrator, being a registered agent for Xizaka.

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

Without seeking competitive bids from other vendors, which is required, PSI awarded subcontracts based on decisions from the LJISD board recommendations. With the vendors inflating prices for the energy saving projects, the vendors then paid kickbacks to Morin, Guajardo and Garza.

Garza received bribes and kickbacks of approximately $234,000 for his votes and recommendation. On Jan. 6, 2022, Garza pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges of conspiracy, theft, bribery, wire fraud and extortion.

Guajardo received bribes and kickbacks of approximately $234,000 for his recommendation of preferred vendors. On Jan. 21, 2022, Guajardo pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges of conspiracy bribery, money laundering and wire fraud.

Morin received bribes and kickbacks of approximately $28,000 for his recommendations of preferred vendors. On Feb. 7, 2022, Morin pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges of bribery and wire fraud.

Xizaka sold inflated prices of sporting goods to LJISD and paid extra money to Guajardo who approved the purchases.

Lopez pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges of theft and bribery.

The second allegation revolves around conflicts of interest. With trustee Alex Cantu having a substantial interest in a nonprofit with the school district while failing to disclose it, according to the administrative judge’s findings.

Cantu failed to file an affidavit stating he had a substantial business interest in RGV Read and Feed while it was doing business with LJISD, the administrative judge found.

During the TEA hearing, the agency brought evidence that Cantu, who was on the organization’s board, earned $271,525 in unexplained consulting fees.

He said that he did not recall earning that money.