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Lawsuit claims La Joya ISD re-assigned employees for political reasons

Six employees filed a lawsuit against the La Joya Independent School District last month, claiming the school board retaliated against them for supporting rival candidates during the November 2020 election.

The employees sued La Joya ISD, school board President Oscar “Coach” Salinas and school board Vice President Armin Garza on June 30. They claim La Joya ISD demoted, re-assigned or fired them for political reasons.

“I don’t believe that anybody’s employment in a school district should ever be contingent on who they support or don’t support in a political campaign,” said attorney Marco De Luna of Mission, who represents the employees.

With the lawsuit pending, La Joya ISD declined to comment.

A dozen candidates ran for school board in November 2020.

They included Palmview City Councilman Anthony Uresti, the son of La Joya ISD Educational Excellence Foundation Director Rita Garza-Uresti.

Anthony Uresti challenged Armin Garza, who ran on a slate with Salinas and former Superintendent Alda T. Benavides. A third candidate, Andie Lee Gonzalez, also campaigned for the position.

When the polls closed on Nov. 3, results published by the Hidalgo County Elections Department showed that Armin Garza had narrowly defeated Anthony Uresti.

La Joya ISD hosted a swearing-in ceremony for Armin Garza and other winning candidates on Nov. 13. Seven days later, the district sent a letter to Rita Garza-Uresti.

“This letter is to formally notify you that I am reassigning you from your position of Educational Foundation Director to the position of Assistant Principal at Dr. Saenz MS,” according to the letter, which La Joya ISD released under the Texas Public Information Act. “This reassignment will be effective immediately.”

The letter, signed by Superintendent Gisela Saenz, said the foundation director position would be eliminated.

“A copy of your new job description is enclosed for your review,” according to the letter. “Your salary and days will remain unchanged from your current salary.”

Rita Garza-Uresti wasn’t the only employee who received a re-assignment letter.

Felipe Del Angel, a bus driver, was transferred from the Instructional Resources and Technology Department to the Transportation Department.

“Your days and salary will remain the same for the 2020-2021 school year,” according to the letter, which the district released under the Public Information Act. “However, adjustments to your days and salary will be made for the 2021-2022 school year based on the compensation pay plan calculated with the new pay grade.”

It wasn’t the first time Del Angel had been re-assigned.

Del Angel and 30 other people sued La Joya ISD in 2014, claiming the district had demoted, harassed, or terminated them for political reasons. U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez dismissed the lawsuit in 2015, but the employees appealed her decision.

While the appeal remained pending, La Joya ISD settled the lawsuit. Del Angel received $60,000, according to a copy of the settlement agreement released under the Public Information Act.

Del Angel joined Rita Garza-Uresti and four other employees — Juanita Barajas, Juan L. Salinas, Mario A. Sifuentes and David Vasquez Jr. — who sued the district in June.

De Luna said the employees would prove their claims with text messages and other evidence.

“Everything that we allege, it happened,” De Luna said. “There’s no question it happened.”

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