McAllen city leaders alter IMAS funding after MISD pulls funds

The International Museum of Art & Science (IMAS) is seen in this undated photo in McAllen. (Courtesy: International Museum of Art & Science/Facebook)
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McALLEN — The financial fallout has begun after a decision by McAllen school district leaders to pull funding from some high-dollar civic projects.

School district leaders have spent months looking for ways to cut spending as MISD deals with a multimillion dollar budget shortfall.

At the top of the chopping block have been projects funded via federal COVID-19 relief money the school district received as part of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER fund.

A portion of those monies were meant to help the city of McAllen build an urban ecology center at Quinta Mazatlán, as well as a children’s museum at the International Museum of Art and Science, or IMAS.

MISD had pledged a total of $6 million to the two projects — $4 million to Quinta and another $2 million to IMAS.

But earlier this month, the school district reneged on its pledge to IMAS.

District officials also appeared ready to pull more than $3 million still owed on the Quinta Mazatlán project; however, that matter has instead gone to mediation due to how that contract is spelled out.

Meanwhile, the school district had already allocated just under a million dollars to the children’s museum project when it summarily decided to yank IMAS’s funding.

That left the museum with a $1.3 million shortfall on its plans.

Enter the city of McAllen.

Last fall, city leaders named several civic projects their “major goals” for the upcoming fiscal year, including the IMAS expansion.

To that end, city leaders unanimously approved a $1 million financial commitment to the children’s museum on top of the money that McAllen already budgets for the museum each year.

But that pledge came with stipulations — namely, that McAllen leaders wanted the museum to use a majority of that million dollars for shovels in the ground — for actual construction.

“This MOU specifically identified a couple of areas of very specific language,” McAllen City Manager Roel “Roy” Rodriguez said during a city commission Monday night.

McAllen City Manager Roel “Roy” Rodriguez

Rodriguez was speaking of the memorandum of understanding between the city and IMAS.

“One of them is that most of the money … would be used for brick and mortar. Unfortunately, with the action that was taken by the McAllen Independent School District, that has left a gap at IMAS in the planning of this project,” Rodriguez said.

Given the new financial constraints that the museum is facing in the wake of the school district’s decision, Rodriguez hoped the city commission would amend the MOU to give IMAS more leeway in how it uses the city’s $1 million.

“We are recommending … that we amend that MOU to allow them to use the money for planning and design. And hopefully, by the time they finish we figure out how to get this accomplished,” Rodriguez said.

Moments later, when Mayor Javier Villalobos opened the floor for a motion, all of the city commissioners clamored at once to approve the MOU amendment.

That resounding support is evidence of the city’s feelings toward its partnership with the museum.

Speaking after the meeting, Rodriguez spoke of just how strong that relationship is.

“Our commitment to IMAS is as strong as it’s ever been and it’s gonna continue to be. And it’ll probably be stronger in the future,” Rodriguez said.

“If you listen or look at the minutes from our budget workshops, I always refer to IMAS as ‘us’ because they’re our museum,” he added, emphasizing the word “our.”

Indeed, during budget discussions last fall, the city approved a $98,000 increase in appropriations for the museum compared to the previous year.

In total, McAllen is contributing nearly $1.8 million to IMAS’s funding this year alone, including its $1 million pledge for the children’s museum, according to the city’s FY 2023-24 budget.

But Rodriguez is still concerned over the turn of events at the school district.

He said city leaders are not just looking for ways to continue helping IMAS, they’re also having to contend with how the school district’s decisions will impact city-owned projects, like Quinta.

Though the fate of that funding commitment is now in the hands of contract negotiators, Rodriguez did not appear too confident on the matter.

“I’m gonna leave that alone for now,” the city manager said earlier this month when asked if communications between the city and the school district have improved.

Quinta Mazatlan on Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

Previously, Rodriguez had told The Monitor that he first learned that MISD was considering pulling its funding from the Quinta Mazatlán project from third parties rather than the district itself.

“I was unhappy,” he said in January when asked for his reaction to the news.

Finding out that a monkey wrench has been thrown into money management plans is also frustrating, especially for an administrator like Rodriguez, who spends months painstakingly laying out McAllen’s $661 million fiscal budget.

“I’m a stickler when it comes to budget, so that’s a big deal when you have to inject new funds into your budget during the year, it’s just something that us as managers and leaders don’t like to do,” Rodriguez said.

Aside from the money, however, the city manager was most concerned over how the school district’s decision would impact longstanding relationships that have taken years to cultivate.

It was a concern he reiterated Monday evening.

“My concern is the relationship between all of these entities. Whether it’s IMAS, the school board, and the city, we’ve always had a very, very good relationship,” Rodriguez said.

“And so we gotta work to maintain that. To save that.”