The La Joya school board approved a secret, six-figure severance package for Superintendent Alda T. Benavides last month.
Board President Claudia Ochoa signed the $467,000 severance agreement on Feb. 25, when the La Joya Independent School District and Benavides “announced her retirement.”
Trustees, though, refused to answer questions about whether or not they approved a severance package that day. An attorney for the district asked the Progress Times to submit a formal public information request — and the district waited more than three weeks to release the agreement.
Palmview City Councilman Joel Garcia, who served two terms on the school board, said the situation troubled him.
“I think the people have the right to know what’s going on with their tax dollars,” Garcia said.
Trustees approved the severance agreement because they wanted to replace Benavides before her employment contract expired in August 2021.
Benavides received $319,069.06, which compensated her for a year of lost salary; an additional payment of $148,240.05, which compensated Benavides for 105 leave and vacation days at $1,411.81 apiece; and a new job: “Transition Assistant to the Interim or Acting Superintendent,” which allows her to collect a paycheck until June 30.
What, exactly, that new job entails remains unclear.
Benavides took personal days from March 4 to March 8, according to records released by the district under the Texas Public Information Act.
The agreement included a non-disclosure clause, which purports to keep the payments to Benavides confidential.
“The Parties agree not to disclose, or cause to be disclosed, the existence or terms of this Agreement (including, but not limited to the fact that Benavides received consideration pursuant to this Agreement), or the substance or content of discussions involved in reaching this Agreement,” according to the 13-page document.
After the Progress Times filed a public information request, however, the district released the agreement without requesting a decision from the Texas Attorney General’s Office.
Neither the district nor Benavides would discuss the severance payment, concerned about breaking the agreement.
As a matter of policy, the district doesn’t discuss personnel issues, said attorney Jaime “Jerry” Muñoz, who represents the board. Along with the policy against discussing personnel matters, the agreement includes a non-disparagement clause.
“The Board, individually and collectively, and Benavides do hereby agree that each of them shall refer any third party inquiries regarding Benavides’ employment as an employee of the District and as the Superintendent of the District to the Agreement through the Board President,” according to the document. “Notwithstanding anything to the contrary herein, the District, the Board, individually and collectively, and Benavides expressly covenant and agree not to make disparaging remarks about the other party(ies), their agents, representatives, attorneys or assigns to this Agreement. The parties agree to issue a joint public statement.”
Benavides declined to comment.
The agreement also includes a copy of the prepared statement, which doesn’t mention the severance package, specify when Benavides will actually stop working for the district or explain why she abruptly retired.
“An Agreement has been reached which allows Dr. Benavides the ability to retire and to pursue other interests,” according to the prepared statement, which the board released on Feb. 25, “And permits the Board to pursue hiring another Superintendent.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: The article has been amended to correctly reflect who signed the agreement. While former La Joya school board President Armin Garza’s name is printed on the signature line of the agreement, current school board President Claudia Ochoa actually signed the agreement