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After 9 years under state supervision, Progreso ISD is independent again

After nine years under Texas Education Agency supervision, the Progreso Independent School District is independent again.

The Texas Education Agency assigned a management team to Progreso ISD in 2014 after the FBI arrested the school board president, the mayor and two district administrators. Members of the management team, which included two conservators, had the ability to veto decisions made by the school board.

Texas Education Agency Deputy Commissioner of Governance Steve Lecholop informed Progreso ISD about the decision on Feb. 10.

“Although I am removing the conservator at this time, please note that the removal of the conservator does not relieve the district and its board of trustees of the responsibility to, at all times, operate the district in compliance with all applicable statutes and rules,” Lecholop wrote, according to a copy of the letter released by Progreso ISD.

The Texas Education Agency didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Progreso ISD announced the decision Tuesday during a school board meeting.

“I think this is a very special day for all of us,” said school board Trustee Juan J. Ramos Jr. “So we’re excited, not only for the board and the administration but the community.”

Fewer than 1,400 students attend Progreso ISD, which serves a rural area south of Weslaco. More than 87% of the district budget comes from state and federal funds, according to documents released under the Texas Public Information Act.


The Progreso Independent School District held a news conference on Feb. 14, 2023, to announce the district was no longer under the supervision of a conservator. (Photo by Dave Hendricks / The Progress Times.)


Members of the Vela family controlled Progreso for years.

Jose Guadalupe Vela Jr., the family patriarch, became the director of Maintenance and Transportation at Progreso ISD.

His son, Michael R. Vela, became the school board president. Another son, Omar L. Vela, served as mayor. And a third son, Orlando Vela, worked for the school district.

They participated in schemes to steal money from Progreso ISD and solicit bribes from contractors.

“During the time frame of the conspiracy, Jose Vela, Omar Vela and Michael Vela required the Architect Jesus Bustos and his firm IDEA Group LLC, the construction company American Contracting, Inc., and the school board attorney to pay bribes and kickbacks to the Velas in order to obtain work with PISD or the City of Progreso. In total, the Velas extracted more than $300,000 in bribe payments from Jesus Bustos, American Contracting, and the attorney,” according to a summary of the scheme filed in federal court. “In addition, from April 2009 to December 2012, Defendant Omar Vela instructed Rumaldo Bustamante, who owned the plumbing and electrical supply company Enhanced Services Solutions Group (ESSG), to provide fraudulent invoices to PISD and the City of Progreso for products that ESSG did not provide. When the invoices were paid, Bustamante returned the funds to Omar Vela as kickbacks.”

Omar Vela wasn’t the only member of the family who defrauded the school district.

Orlando Vela, the risk manager at Progreso ISD, created a business called Borderline Office Supplies.

The company submitted fraudulent invoices to Progreso ISD for nearly $13,000 worth of janitorial products.

Orlando Vela, though, never actually delivered the products. His wife, who also worked for Progreso ISD, approved the payments.

When he appeared before a federal judge for sentencing, Jose Vela said the family split bribe money with other members of the school board.

“I would like to say that I know my son Omar has been sentenced already but what he said about receiving the minimal amount of money is correct. He wasn’t a board member. He wasn’t getting the money the other unindicted board members got. Michael, the same way,” Jose Vela said, according to a transcript of the hearing. “Usually, we divided it up between six board members, not three; hopefully, that — I know that I broke the law. I also broke — I know that greed is a sin. I also, you know, deal with my faith by doing those things.”

A follow-up investigation conducted by the Texas Education Agency revealed more problems at Progreso ISD, including questionable spending and conflicts of interest.

The Texas Education Agency appointed a management team, which consisted of two conservators, to supervise the district. They had the power to veto decisions made by the school board.

In one instance, a conservator blocked trustees from placing an item on the school board meeting agenda to discuss the termination of a law firm that represented Progreso ISD. In another instance, a conservator prohibited the district from approving any “salary increases of any type.”

One of the two conservators, Linda H. Romeros, supervised Progreso ISD until the Texas Education Agency ended the arrangement on Feb. 10.

Romeros became part of the Progreso ISD family, said attorney Kevin O’Hanlon of Austin, who represents the district.

“She adopted the board,” O’Hanlon said. “And the board adopted her.”

Progreso ISD gradually made progress.

The district reduced the number of teachers on the payroll to match enrollment, fixed problems with the bilingual and special education programs, and convinced voters to borrow money for infrastructure improvements.

“What really happened was: The citizens of Progreso elected a better board,” O’Hanlon said.

Progreso ISD also built up a healthy general fund.

The district had an unrestricted fund balance — the amount of money available for any purpose — of nearly $7.9 million in August 2022, according to an audit report prepared by Brownsville-based accounting firm Cascos & Associates, more than triple what Progreso ISD had in August 2016.

Superintendent Sergio Coronado said the school board and community worked together to turn Progreso ISD around.

“I do want to point out that our administration, our teachers and staff, our parents, but most importantly our students, have been waiting for this,” Coronado said. “Because they have worked very, very hard.”

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