La Joya school district fires back at TEA after intervention hearing

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

An attorney for the La Joya school district has doubled down and expanded on his criticism of a state investigation that could lead to a potential intervention there.

In a lengthy statement, attorney Jerry “Jaime” Munoz again denounced the Aug. 28 Texas Education Agency, or TEA hearing and the investigation that preceded it.

That hearing centered on two allegations levied by the TEA.

First, the TEA concluded that the district’s board failed to prevent five board trustees and administrators, who have all been convicted, from defrauding the district in three schemes.

Secondly, the TEA alleged that former employees along with former and current trustees failed to complete conflict of interest forms, including Board President Alex Cantu, who was paid as a consultant by the nonprofit organization RGV Read and Feed, which was ran, in part, by Cantu’s wife.

Additionally, during the hearing, Ashley Jerrigan, TEA’s associate commissioner for governance, compliance and investigations, testified that it is her “understanding that there are criminal investigations open related to trustee Cantu.”

Munoz said in his statement that Jerrigan’s statement was made “without any background information or supporting evidence.”

“Such a claim is not only damaging to Mr. Cantu’s reputation but also serves to further erode trust in the credibility and thoroughness of TEA’s investigative process,” he said. “From the moment we were made aware of the indictments against certain Trustees, the Board acted swiftly by drafting a resolution for the District’s administration to create a corrective action plan within six months.”

Munoz also touched on RGV Read and Feed.

“We feel compelled to correct specific inaccuracies presented by TEA witnesses concerning the RGV Read and Feed program. Contrary to the assertions made, food was indeed delivered by RGV Read and Feed to students,” he said in the statement. “The TEA investigator could not identify what food or quantity of food he was alleging that was ‘allegedly’ not delivered to students.”

The attorney also said a TEA claim that administrative costs for the program raised a red flag was made without reviewing or even being familiar with program requirements set by the Texas Department of Agriculture.

“In fact, the investigator admitted to NOT citing any state or federal statute which was allegedly violated. In addition, the TEA investigator admitted he did not even study the specific grant program for its guidelines and/or restrictions,” Munoz said in the statement.

Munoz also slammed the TEA’s conclusions about RGV Read and Feed, alleging testimony provided in the hearing indicates to him that it conducted no substantive research regarding its conclusions.

“It is essential to note that after-school meal programs, including RGV Read and Feed, operate on a reimbursement model,” Munoz said. “All funds received from the Texas Department of Agriculture were properly accounted for, and RGV Read and Feed was duly reimbursed for its services.”

The attorney said TEA’s claims, which he called false, undermine the credibility of the TEA’s investigation and recommendations.

At the hearing, TEA attorney Matthew Tiffee said in an open statement that Cantu received a quarter of a million dollars in unexplained consulting fees while his wife was on the RGV Read and Feed board.

“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.

Furthermore, Tiffee said the TEA 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.”

The TEA presented witness testimony that indicated Cantu made $251,525 while working for RGV Read and Feed in 2018 and 2019 while also serving on the school board.

To conclude his statement, Munoz pointed out one last subject during the hearing where he said the TEA was erroneous.

“The District’s administration at the time did comply with the resolution and the Board adopted all recommended actions including strengthening of procurement policies,” Munoz said.

In fact, according to Munoz, the district’s policies go above and beyond 95% of all other districts in Texas.

“We also immediately sought assistance from both TEA and Region One. While Region One has been consistently helpful and involved from the outset, our proactive outreach to TEA for a conservator or a monitor was not only declined but later used against us,” Munoz said. “TEA’s attempt to cite our willingness to cooperate and open our doors to them as a mark against us, even before concluding their ‘investigation,’ further underscores our concern that the agency had predetermined its conclusions.”

An administrative law judge is expected to deliver findings of fact and conclusions of law based on the hearing by early October. TEA Commissioner Mike Morath will then decide whether to move ahead with intervention.