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New La Joya ISD school board president embraces transparency, will make board meeting records available upon request

After two years of tightly restricting access to public records, the La Joya school district plans to start making documents from school board meetings available upon request.

In September 2017, when someone provided documents from the school board meeting packet to a local businesswoman, the school district limited access to just a handful of administrators.

EspieOchoaTwo years later, that businesswoman, Mary T. Hernandez, is a member of the school board. With her support, a majority of the trustees backed Espie Ochoa for board president last month.

Ochoa served on the school board from 2007 to 2016 before rejoining the board last year. She asked Superintendent Gisela Saenz to provide meeting packets to members of the public upon request.

“It’s important for them to know because they elected us,” Ochoa said, adding that she wants parents to know about policies that affect their children and taxpayers to know how the district is spending their money. “I think knowing what’s happening in our board meetings is so imperative — that they get to know what’s going on.”

For years, the district provided a copy of the school board meeting packet upon request.

The meeting packet included supplemental information about items on the school board agenda, including draft copies of district policies, bids submitted by contractors and financial information.

After the district restricted access to meeting packets in September 2017, anyone who wanted to review the documents was forced to submit a formal request under the Texas Public Information Act.

The district refused to release the information and requested decisions from the Texas Attorney General’s Office, which took months to review the documents. That frequently fueled rumors and speculation about school board decisions.

In June 2019, the school board agenda included an item titled: “Financing for Phase 2 of the PSI Guaranteed Energy Savings Performance Contract Amendment Project.”

Without the meeting packet, members of the public didn’t know the board would consider whether or not to borrow $32.5 million for heating, ventilation and air conditioning upgrades, radios, solar panels, security gates, artificial turf for two football fields and running tracks for 23 elementary schools, among other projects.

Trustees approved the proposal with significant changes, which knocked the total cost down to roughly $20 million.
None of the information about the proposal was available before the board meeting.

After she became school board president, Ochoa met with the superintendent to discuss goals and priorities.

Ochoa said she wanted the school district to become more transparent and start releasing the meeting packets upon request.

They also discussed ways the district could start posting documents online.

The Texas Association of School Boards offers a simple, cloud-based software system called BoardBook, which allows school districts to post meeting information online. More than 700 school districts use BoardBook, including Mission, Sharyland and McAllen.

Ochoa said she wants the school district to review BoardBook and similar software.

Parents, teachers and taxpayers all play an important role in the decision-making process, Ochoa said, and should be informed about school board decisions.

“Getting to know what’s going to take place at each meeting is so critical,” Ochoa said.

This article originally appeared in the Friday Oct. 18, 2019 issue of the Progress Times.

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