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There is nothing more important to our communities, our families and the future of our children than a strong public school system. Our dedicated La Joya ISD teachers and staff work tirelessly and do an excellent job preparing our students for success.

Recently, a crucial policy change took place with La Joya ISD that signals a significant step toward preventing corruption and minimizing conflicts of interest. The Board of Managers made a bold move to prohibit district administrators from holding an elected position. This policy is tailored to positions that oversee employees or manage the financial affairs of the district. This policy shift, led by Superintendent Dr. Marcey Sorenson and Board of Managers President Julian Alvarez, is a praiseworthy initiative that deserves our support.

This action is key in dismantling the persistent culture of corruption that has tainted the integrity of our institutions. The recent string of federal indictments involving public officials from La Joya ISD, Agua Special Utility District (“Agua SUD”) and the city of Peñitas emphasizes the urgency of addressing this issue at its core.

Some board members at La Joya ISD, the largest employer in western Hidalgo County, took advantage of this influence to enrich themselves and their allies with promotions, stipends and government positions and contracts. In 2017, I passed a law that attempted to address the trading of hires between board members of La Joya ISD and Agua SUD. At the time, the president and vice president of the La Joya ISD board were employed by Agua SUD, while four Agua SUD directors were employed by La Joya ISD as administrators of different departments. This trading of hires of elected officials by these overlapping taxing entities created a huge conflict of interest.

Agua Special Utility District’s office seen Friday, June 30, 2023, in Palmview. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

Senate Bill 814 (85R) prohibited Agua SUD from hiring elected officials or family members of another taxing entity within the district, such as La Joya ISD. To protect their cushy and dubious jobs, Agua SUD spent public money to pay for consultants to kill SB 814. When it became clear they would fail, both boards took actions to loot additional taxpayer money. On May 1, 2017, the Agua SUD board rushed to approve new five-year employment contracts with the two La Joya ISD trustees with a severance clause that guaranteed a huge payout to both trustees shortly after SB 814 became law in June 2017. Eight days after Agua SUD approved the new contracts, the board members employed by La Joya ISD all conveniently received promotions, new positions and dramatic increases in their stipends and salaries that were significantly higher than the average teacher in the district. In July 2017, the Agua SUD board voted for severance packages totaling $489,000 between the two trustees, although they were employed less than two years. These events led to the Texas Rangers conducting a criminal investigation of Agua SUD in 2018.

The unethical and illegal actions of these public officials continued from there. In 2021, a federal investigation of La Joya ISD, Agua SUD and other neighboring cities revealed a massive bribery and kickback scheme that involved more than a dozen public officials in western Hidalgo County. In 2022, the U.S. Attorneys’ Office charged the same two trustees who received the severance packages from Agua SUD and three of its central office administrators with various federal financial crimes for actions taken from 2017-2020. Court documents revealed the intricate kickback scheme and bribe payments made to local elected officials and administrators in western Hidalgo County. As of April 2024, almost a dozen local public officials and subcontractors have pleaded guilty to federal charges that included bribery, money laundering, extortion and wire fraud, while others yet to be charged have been implicated in the conspiracy to defraud taxpayers.

Records show that one trustee illegally used his influence over elected officials employed by La Joya ISD to ensure that one company was awarded energy savings performance contract projects. This company then hired subcontractors recommended by the administrators. The subcontractors then overcharged La Joya ISD, with the trustee and two administrators receiving kickbacks from the overcharges. The same trustee also supported promotions and stipends to the elected officials employed by La Joya ISD for their official votes or support of the same company to be awarded energy savings performance contract projects at other neighboring governmental entities. As a result, taxpayers from La Joya ISD, Agua SUD and the city of Mission were on the hook for at least $70 million. Funds from the overcharges and inflated costs were used to pay out at least $1.5 million to local officials involved in the massive bribery and kickback scheme.

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

Based on these charges and the guilty pleas, as well as other complaints the Texas Education Agency received about the board’s alleged fraud and violations of law, the commissioner of education authorized a special investigation of La Joya ISD on March 21, 2022. The TEA Final Report on the Investigation of La Joya ISD made the same or similar findings that federal investigators uncovered. TEA determined that the state could not afford to wait for another round of indictments to address the corruption and conflicts of interest at La Joya ISD. TEA replaced the local school board with a board of managers. As the saying goes, to enact real change, one must “strike at the root.” It is key to eliminate corruption from its source to advance a culture of accountability and ethical governance.

For far too long, individuals in positions of power have exploited their authority for personal gain, disregarding the well-being of our children and the hard-earned money of taxpayers. The transformation we seek must begin at the top, permeating throughout the district to ensure that integrity and public interest remain paramount. This district policy will ensure that every decision made by employees in influential positions is based solely on delivering the best education for our students.

Elected public officials are entrusted with a duty to serve the public and safeguard taxpayer funds, not to serve their own interests and line their pockets at the expense of the community. I applaud the leadership of Superintendent Dr. Marcey Sorenson and the board of managers in providing proper oversight and correcting the mismanagement and unethical practices that have plagued the district for many years. In this instance, La Joya ISD has a legitimate interest in regulating the political activities of its employees. La Joya ISD employees with the power to hire, fire or manage tax dollars should not be employed to build a powerful, invincible and corrupt political machine. This new policy strikes a balance between the district’s interest in promoting efficiency of its administrators to prioritize the student’s needs and the administrators’ interests. I strongly believe the limits on holding elected office by the district’s administrators substantially serve the district’s interests that are “important” enough to outweigh the administrators’ rights and political ambitions.

Looking ahead, it is important that we continue this momentum. During the next legislative session, I will work to enact any necessary changes that will safeguard the future of our children, uphold the values of ethical behavior, accountability and transparency, and ensure the culture of corruption comes to an end.

Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa represents Texas State Senate District 20, which extends from Hidalgo County to Nueces County. He writes for our Board of Contributors.

Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa