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La Joya school board floats compromise on state takeover, hearing held

Trustees on the La Joya Independent School District Board voted 4-3 Monday to accept a state-appointed conservator at the district and tender the board’s resignations to that individual as an alternative to a possible takeover by the Texas Education Agency, a decision on which is expected after Election Day.

It’s not clear whether the state would accept that solution or how it would be implemented. Besides, three trustees say they won’t step down.

They feel the compromise proposal wouldn’t be enough to reform the district.

“To be clear, the three of us will not resign. Instead, we look forward to supporting the appointed Board of Managers as elected trustees even if that means we no longer have authority as board members,” a joint statement from trustees Alda T. Benavides, Mary T. Hernandez and Roberto Zamora says

The majority of the board, however, described stepping down in lieu of intervention and the absence of meaningful elections as a sacrifice being made in favor of democracy.

“We’re looking out for the district,” Board President Alejandro “Alex” Cantu said Monday. “This is how democracy works. The community has a voice and we owe it to the community to give them that right, to give them that voice. Ultimately, we’re just employees of the community.”

The La Joya Independent School District boardroom. (Photo courtesy of La Joya ISD.)

The agency moved toward appointing a board of managers at La Joya ISD— the most significant level of intervention — in May, after an investigation that followed corruption, arrests and allegations of corruption in recent years.

An elected board would remain at the district under that level of intervention, potentially in an advisory capacity, though it would be effectively powerless.

In a split vote, the district’s board chose to resist intervention in May, arguing that individual bad actors were to blame for the district’s scandals and that it’s taken significant steps toward reform.

Findings issued by administrative law judges issued last month based on an appeals hearing in August weren’t particularly favorable to the district’s position and especially criticized Cantu — who disagreed with those findings.

The district had a closed-door hearing Wednesday that could decide whether the state intervenes, a decision that ultimately lies in the hands of Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath.

According to the agency, Morath is expected to make a decision after the November 7 elections. The district says it expects a decision sometime before or during early December.

The board discussed intervention and other less-controversial items in executive session for over two hours Monday.

“The board voted to offer its resignation in exchange for the commissioner to place a conservator but allow an elected board in place, so that the community could have a choice in who represents them,” Ben Castillo, one of the district’s attorneys, said Monday evening.

Castillo said he wasn’t sure how that process would work if the agency accepted the deal.

“We don’t know,” he said. “We’re just offering it.”

If the state takes the deal, Castillo said, elections would still happen and elected officials would still wield power.

Castillo said Progreso cut a similar deal when the state intervened there.

“But Progreso wasn’t the whole board. It was just a couple of board members. And this one, the motion was for all seven,” he said.

Jaime “Jerry” Muñoz, another of the school district’s attorneys, said that during Wednesday’s hearing each side would have 20 minutes to make a final presentation.

Both Castillo and Muñoz said Monday that they weren’t sure Morath would take the deal; they hoped he would.

Monday’s vote proved to be an emotional and controversial decision for the board.

It split along faction lines that have been fairly consistent during the intervention process.

The majority faction — Cantu, along with trustees Nereyda Cantu, Esmeralda Solis and Anthony Uresti — described cutting a deal as a difficult, necessary decision being made to keep La Joya ISD leadership in the hands of the La Joya ISD community. A decision, they said, preserves local democracy at the cost of their public positions.

More than one of those trustees were in tears Monday.

“We, literally, were carrying the weight of the district on our backs today. And I don’t think that a lot of people recognize that…” Solis said. “The decision that we had to make today — and I think a lot of us said it — was probably the most difficult decision that we had to make as a board. But we were willing to do that and sacrifice our term, because at this point we don’t know if we’re going to be selected or not. But we’re willing to do that to be able to save the district from a complete TEA takeover, which would be detrimental to our kids, to our schools, to our community as a whole.”

The decision was not, however, unanimous.

Benavides, Hernandez and Zamora all opposed brokering the deal.

Alex Cantu expressed disappointment over that opposition and what it might cost locals.

“If we’re looking out for the district, this is how democracy works. The community has a voice and we owe it to the community to give them that right and to give them that voice,” he said.

Muñoz said trustees who offered up their resignations showed their commitment to the public.

Minority faction members on the board said in a joint statement that their opposition doesn’t show a lack of commitment.

Instead, they said, their opposition simply shows support for more significant reform.

“Our vote against the proposed alternative that is intended to prevent the appointment of a Board of Managers by TEA was not a vote against TEA interventions,” the statement says. “Rather, it was a clear demonstration of continued support for TEA and based on our belief that the proposal is not enough to promote the independent thinking and decision making that is so much needed to address the allegations identified by TEA’s investigation and supported by the Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law submitted by the Chief Administrative Law Judge of the State Office of Administrative Hearings and the governance and political patronage issues that influence the district’s decision making.”

Majority La Joya board members referenced during Monday’s meeting the state’s controversial takeover of Houston ISD this year, which has been met by significant criticism and resistance.

Minority members said the two districts aren’t the same, and that using Houston as an analogy for La Joya is underhanded.

“Criticism voiced by my fellow board members about what is happening in Houston ISD are scare tactics being used to create fear, anxiety, uncertainty and apprehension,” the minority faction’s statement says. “The reality is that La Joya ISD is different from Houston ISD and what happens in La Joya ISD would be based on what is in the best interest of La Joya ISD — students, parents, employees and community.”

 

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