After a woman accused the La Joya school board of compadrismo during a mid-September meeting, the district responded by restricting access to public records — documents other school districts routinely post online.
Mary T. Hernandez, 51, of Mission confronted the school board on Sept. 13.
“I am concerned about the amount of $377,000 being awarded simply to maintain and replace filters,” Hernandez said during public comment. “Especially since the district has plenty of personnel to take care of this matter.”
What Hernandez said apparently didn’t bother the board. Trustees unanimously accepted the proposal without any discussion. And the district posted the meeting video, which includes her acerbic comments, on YouTube five days later.
However, what Hernandez knew — that a company called Dezvia LLC, which is co-owned by former Palmview City Manager Ramon Segovia, submitted a proposal to maintain and replace air filters — prompted a leak investigation.
District police Chief Raul Gonzalez tasked an investigator with tracking down the leak, according to records obtained by the Progress Times under the Texas Public Information Act.
“According to Chief Gonzalez, the person Mary Hernandez had information that was not readily available to public (sic) and was an agenda item that the board had not approved as of yet,” according to the investigation report. “Chief Gonzalez advised that he wanted me to review if it was possible for us to find out who had leaked the information and released a form from the binders that have the agenda items.”
After a fruitless search for the leak, the La Joya Independent School District restricted access to public records and created a cumbersome new process for obtaining basic information that other districts post online.
The Agenda Packet
State law requires school districts to post meeting agendas, which provide short descriptions of what the board plans to discuss, at least 72 hours before the meeting begins.
Along with the agenda, school districts usually prepare a packet with exhibits for each item, including draft contracts, financial reports and other key documents.
“With those vague descriptions on the agenda, sometimes I’d have to go to the exhibits to see what, exactly, we were discussing,” said former McAllen school board President Erica de la Garza-Lopez.
Many school districts, including Mission, McAllen and Harlingen, post their meeting packets online.
“It’s vital for the community to know what’s going on,” de la Garza-Lopez said. “It’s key to transparency in the district.”
To help districts post agendas and meeting packets online, the Texas Association of School Boards created software called BoardBook. Competitors, including Colorado-based Granicus, offer software with additional features. Other districts simply upload meeting packets to the web themselves.
La Joya posts only the agenda online, leaving the public with very little information about what the school board plans to discuss.
Until September, school board secretary Irma Herrera printed courtesy copies of the meeting packet upon request.
“At the end of the day, anybody can go and request a copy,” said school board Trustee J.J. Peña. “It’s a public record.”
Filing a formal public information request became the only option after the Sept. 13 meeting, when the district stopped providing courtesy copies.
The Dezvia Controversy
On Sept. 13, the school board considered Item C15: “La Joya ISD Air System Maintenance, Inspection & Replacement Project through Construction Services Job Order Contract Competitive Sealed Proposal #2017-109.”
The agenda packet included pricing information from Mission-based Dezvia LLC, which offered to handle the job for $377,106.80.
Former Palmview City Manager Ramon Segovia and Jovanna Hernandez, a counselor at La Joya Early College High School, formed the company in June 2017, according to records filed with the Texas Secretary of State’s Office. Jovanna’s husband, Edgar, is also involved with the company.
They named it Dezvia, combining the last three letters of Hernandez and the last three letters of Segovia.
Segovia brought years of government experience to the company. Hernandez had owned her own construction business. They were also old friends who attended skeet shoots together.
When the school district solicited proposals from companies willing to perform job-order contracts, Dezvia responded.
Along with Dezvia, the district accepted proposals from Center Stone Services in Weslaco and Adept Facilities & Design in Harlingen, according to district purchasing records.
That allowed Dezvia to submit a proposal for the air filter work in September.
Other than the vaguely worded agenda item, the school district didn’t release any information about the air filter proposal to the public.
Rumors about Dezvia started spreading before the school board meeting on Sept. 13. That day, someone sent documents from the agenda packet to Mary Hernandez.
The information infuriated her.
District workers, not private contractors, should perform maintenance work and replace air filters, Hernandez said, adding that she considered the deal a waste of taxpayer money.
“This is a scam,” Mary Hernandez said during an interview, recalling her initial reaction. “Then I looked at the name of the company. I was like ‘Really?’ They couldn’t have picked a better name for the company?”
Mary Hernandez said Dezvia reminded her of the Spanish word desvia, which means divert or deflect.
Concerned about the deal, Mary Hernandez attended the school board meeting and spoke during public comment.
“I remind you that you were elected to look out for us, the taxpayers, and our children,” Mary Hernandez said. “Have you done your research? Is this going to save our district money? Where and how? How does this benefit our children?”
The school board approved the $377,000 proposal from Dezvia without any discussion.
Video of Mary Hernandez’s comments went viral in western Hidalgo County, but only a small number of people with access to the school board meeting packet had access to all the facts.
“I think it’s all political,” Jovanna Hernandez said, adding that her company had a right to submit a proposal like any other contractor. “I don’t see why they’re having to bring innocent bystanders like myself and my husband into this.”
Although the school board accepted the proposal from Dezvia, the company never actually provided any air filters.
The $377,000 proposal, which depended on quotes provided by a supplier, didn’t include transportation costs, Segovia said. As a result, Dezvia withdrew the proposal.
Controversy over Dezvia, though, didn’t fade away.
Concerned about the leak, district police Chief Raul Gonzalez ordered an investigation.
“According to Chief Gonzalez, it was alleged that an unknown person provided Mrs. Hernandez with the aforementioned pages and (sic) ended up on a posting on Facebook,” according to the investigation report. “Chief Gonzalez provided me with a document that Mrs. Hernandez passed out during the board meeting.”
The district prepared a list of people with access to the meeting packet, ranging from Superintendent Alda T. Benavides to J.J. Luna, who works for the American Federation of Teachers.
Investigators never spoke with Mary Hernandez. They closed the case without finding the leak.
After realizing the leak involved public information, Gonzalez said the case quickly shifted from “how did this get out” to “how can we make this better.”
The district decided to require anyone who wanted a copy of the meeting packet to file a formal public information request. Administrators also started restricting internal access to the full meeting packet, providing information only as needed.
Gonzalez said the changes save paper and reduce the potential for problems when a meeting is canceled.
“They won’t give you anything now,” said Luna, the American Federation of Teachers representative.
When he submits a public information request for the meeting packet, attorneys for the school district request a decision from the Texas Attorney General’s Office, Luna said. The process takes months and doesn’t allow him to review documents before school board meetings.
“It’s just a delay tactic that they’re using,” Luna said, adding that he no longer bothers to ask for the meeting packet because he never receives a copy before the meeting.
The Progress Times filed a public information request for the Sept. 13 school board meeting packet on Sept. 14. More than five months later, the district hasn’t released the documents.
“They’re hiding stuff,” Luna said. “They’re hiding some of the stuff on the agenda.”