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After 36 years with La Joya ISD, superintendent announces her retirement

Superintendent Gisela Saenz, who steered the La Joya Independent School District through a turbulent four-year period marked by the pandemic, declining enrollment and a major corruption case, announced her retirement on Wednesday.

Saenz started her career with La Joya ISD in 1987, when she became a kindergarten teacher at Rosendo Benavides Elementary School in Sullivan City — her hometown. During the next three decades, Saenz worked her way up to superintendent.

“My career has been a blessing in so many ways. Many of my kindergarten students are now district employees,” Saenz said Wednesday, when she addressed the school board. “And I’m so proud that they serve our students in many capacities.”

Board President Alex Cantu thanked Saenz for her 36 years of service to La Joya ISD.

“During unprecedented challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Saenz demonstrated outstanding leadership, prioritizing the safety and wellbeing of our students, staff and our entire community,” Cantu said. “She swiftly adapted to the rapid changes and circumstances, implementing innovative remote learning strategies and providing essential resources. Her commitment to maintaining educational continuity and fostering unity proved crucial to La Joya ISD’s resilience and success during these extraordinary times.”

Gisela Saenz. (Photo courtesy of La Joya ISD.)

La Joya ISD distributed free food, provided students with internet access and partnered with Hidalgo County to vaccinate the public.

“We saved a lot of lives in our district,” Saenz said in an interview. “And our community.”

When students returned to school, La Joya ISD teachers worked hard to make up for lost time.

“I’m very proud of the academic gains our kids have made post-pandemic,” Saenz said.

Saenz also worked closely with the board to address declining enrollment, a challenge faced by school districts throughout the Rio Grande Valley.

In January, the school board approved a “Staffing Adjustment Plan,” which may save La Joya ISD up to $24.3 million by eliminating positions. While the process involved many difficult decisions, Saenz said the plan will allow La Joya ISD to remain competitive and make strategic investments.

Another major challenge Saenz faced was corruption.

Two former school board trustees and two former administrators pleaded guilty to public corruption charges in 2022. In court, prosecutors described how they solicited bribes, circumvented the competitive bidding process and threatened to cancel a La Joya ISD contract during an extortion scheme.

Saenz and the school board put together corrective action plans to address problems identified by the investigation, requested an external audit and provided administrators with additional training.

While her four-year stint as superintendent was marked by turmoil, Saenz remained focused on positioning La Joya ISD for success.

The district started offering pre-kindergarten classes for 3-year-olds, which may bolster enrollment; upgraded aging campuses with new heating, air conditioning and ventilation systems; and maintained a wide array of career and technical education programs.

Perhaps her most important legacy, though, will be the impact Saenz had on her students and co-workers during her time as a teacher.

“I’ve been blessed that I’ve learned from them,” Saenz said. “And they’ve learned from me.”

Saenz’s last day will be June 27.

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