The Weslaco Independent School District Board of Trustees will consider suspending Superintendent Priscilla Canales at a special meeting Thursday pending the results of a forensic audit launched last month, although it’s not clear why trustees feel the suspension is necessary and the upcoming decision will likely be contentious.
Canales’ potential suspension follows months of turmoil on the board caused by a shift in power that gave a faction of mostly new trustees the majority after two incumbents were defeated in the November election and former superintendent Richard Rivera’s decision not to seek re-election as a trustee.
Earlier this year the board voted 4-3 to terminate the district’s general counsel. The new majority successfully called for a forensic audit in early February.
That audit is expected to last three months and will investigate financial statements for local, state and federal dollars, as well as construction expenditures, searching for conflicts of interest and background searches on vendors.
Days after the audit launched, Canales announced plans to retire at the end of the 2020-21 school year, characterizing the decision as a choice to focus on her personal life.
Barring any dissension in the new majority faction, Canales’ suspension Thursday appears likely. She did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Canales, 54, has led the district since 2016 as its first female superintendent. The district has avoided any major scandals since then and by all appearances appeared to be operating effectively.
An outsider to the community, Canales has largely been embraced. She was even named the 2020 Woman of the Year by the Weslaco Area Chamber of Commerce.
Suspending a superintendent before an audit’s results are returned is atypical, at least compared to other forensic audits launched by Rio Grande Valley districts in recent history.
Trustees Jesse Trevino and Marcos De Los Santos — both members of the new majority faction — did not respond to phone calls about the possible suspension Tuesday.
Board President Armando Cuellar Jr., who acted as a tiebreaker in favor of the freshmen trustees in the 4-3 vote to fire the district’s general counsel, also declined to comment, saying he wasn’t at liberty to discuss the possible suspension since it’s a personnel matter.
Trustee Jaclyn Munoz Sustaita, the last member of that faction, originally agreed to comment on the possible suspension via email.
When sent a message asking whether she placed the suspension item on Thursday’s agenda, whether she feels a suspension is warranted, who the district may consider as an interim superintendent and whether she feels Canales is competent to lead the district and whether she should leave the district sooner Sustaita reneged, citing legal reasons.
“I would love to answer all those questions, believe me, I want the community to be aware of what is going on,” she wrote. “Unfortunately, I just received a phone call from legal counsel and they are telling me we can’t answer any questions about this. Hopefully soon we can share this much needed information with the public. I look forward to the day where Weslaco ISD can focus on the staff and students and positive outcomes for all. That’s what we all care about, that’s what we’re serving for.”
Before voting to axe the district’s general counsel in December, Sustaita likened that decision to President Joe Biden choosing his own cabinet.
Members of the minority faction were more candid Tuesday, with at least two voicing their support for Canales and saying they would vote against a suspension.
Trustees Andrew Gonzalez and Isidoro Nieto both say they will vote against Canales’ potential suspension Thursday. Gonzalez said he was upset when he saw the suspension item pop up on the agenda. He described Canales as a leader who has successfully guided the district through the COVID-19 pandemic and said the district has flourished while she’s been superintendent.
“We have two more six weeks left in the year, and the focus should be on our students and their success at this critical time of the year,” he said. “To me, we have a proven leader who has demonstrated that, and that is obviously Dr. Canales. I mean, we agreed to the forensic audit, and I believe truly that if the audit reveals something then we need to act accordingly.”
Gonzalez described the district’s achievements since Canales was brought on board — among them more students being enrolled in dual credit courses, graduation numbers going up and better employee benefits. The number of state academic distinctions at the district has more than tripled during her leadership, Gonzalez said. The fund balance is the highest its been in a decade and the district has one of the lowest school district taxing obligations in the Valley, its financial offices have garnered awards for their performance, Canales has collaborated successfully with outside entities to help the district ride out the pandemic and Canales has been the driver behind community education initiatives.
Things, Gonzalez says, are going good. Which is why he’s concerned about losing Canales in the last lap of the 2020-21 school year.
“Her leadership since she has been here is critical to the students,” he said. “We have graduation, grade promotion, all these things hinge on her leadership, so to bring in somebody new, to try to play catchup in these critical times — to me, it’s alarming.”
Gonzalez said he’s not aware of anything that would warrant Canales’ suspension and that he doesn’t understand why she would be suspended before the audit is over.
“I’m not sure yet what they’re looking for,” he said. “Because even the business office got a perfect score for the last three years in business and finance. So I’m not sure right now exactly what they’re looking into, but we’ll find out on Thursday.”
Trustee Nieto echoed those sentiments. He said he’s not aware of any reason Canales should be suspended and lauded what she’s accomplished since joining the district.
“Andrew and I and Dr. Jaime (Rodriguez) have served the last four years together, and like I said, it’s been very positive,” he said. “She’s done a very good job. She’s done what a superintendent should do. I support her 100%.”
Canales’ fate will be decided at a special board meeting Thursday at 5:30 p.m.