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La Joya ISD plans to fight Texas Education Agency takeover

The La Joya Independent School District set the stage for a high-stakes showdown with the Texas Education Agency on Monday.

During a contentious meeting on Monday afternoon, trustees voted 4-3 to “proceed with any action necessary” to stop the Texas Education Agency from replacing the elected school board with a state-appointed board of managers.

“I encourage TEA to come in. Not in this capacity. Because I don’t agree to that,” said Trustee Esmeralda Solis. “I don’t agree. Why? Because the community has placed us in this position.”

Solis and Trustee Anthony Uresti, who both joined the school board in November, said they wanted the opportunity to fix problems identified by the Texas Education Agency.

“I think this board is probably one of the most qualified boards in all of Texas,” Uresti said. “We have three PhDs in education. I’m a former educator with a master’s in education. Two ex-superintendents.”

The Texas Education Agency started investigating La Joya ISD in 2022, when two former school board trustees and three former La Joya ISD administrators pleaded guilty to public corruption charges.

La Joya ISD suggested the Texas Education Agency end the investigation and appoint a conservator to supervise the school board. The Texas Education Agency rejected the request.

On May 9, more than a year after the investigation started, the Texas Education Agency released a damning report on La Joya ISD and recommended the state replace the school board with a board of managers.

The report concluded “the board created an environment that allowed two Trustees and central office administrators to engage in acts of extortion, receiving kickbacks, bribery, theft, wire fraud, and money laundering.” It also determined that school board President Alex Cantu failed to properly disclose a conflict of interest.

Alex Cantu denied any wrongdoing.

When a board of managers is appointed, the school board is stripped of all power and becomes an advisory body.

Trustees held a meeting on Monday afternoon to decide whether or not to appeal the decision.

The emotional discussion exposed a deep divide between the school board majority, which took control in November, and members of the minority.

At the request of Alex Cantu, who is part of the majority, district administrators played a recording of Trustee Alda T. Benavides, who served as superintendent from 2006 to 2019, speaking with Texas Education Agency investigators. They also played a recording of a conversation between Interim Superintendent Heriberto “Beto” Gonzalez and school district police Chief Raul Gonzalez that appeared to contradict her story.

Members of the majority accused Benavides of asking the Texas Education Agency to intervene because she lost control of the school board.

“They elected us by November,” Uresti said. “By January, we had a board member saying: ‘Take over.’”

Benavides, who is part of the minority, stood by her comments and emphasized that she would welcome a board of managers whether she was in the minority or majority.

“It’s another blatant way of them trying to blame me,” Benavides said. “But I have a clear conscience.”

Benavides also accused the majority of manipulating the “Staffing Adjustment Plan” to protect their supporters and punish their opponents.

Members of the audience, including Alex Cantu’s wife, South Texas College Trustee Victoria “Vicky” Cantu, frequently interrupted the meeting by cheering, jeering and making sidebar comments. Supporters of the minority also interrupted the meeting on several occasions.

“I really feel that the more I listen to what’s going on here, the more I feel like it’s a reason for TEA to come in and do something about it,” said Trustee Roberto Zamora, who is part of the minority.

Attorney Jaime “Jerry” Muñoz of Pharr, who represents La Joya ISD, sided with the majority. Muñoz said the school board shouldn’t be held responsible for the “actions or inactions” of a few individuals.

In his 17-odd years with La Joya ISD, the district occasionally had problems with local, state and federal agencies, Muñoz said, but always managed to find a solution.

“And every time, La Joya ISD comes out on top,” Muñoz said.