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McAllen ISD reconsidering Quinta, IMAS commitments

McAllen ISD’s board of trustees voted Monday to formally revisit about $4.35 million in commitments to expansion projects at Quinta Mazatlan and the International Museum of Art & Science in the hopes that partners on those projects forgive at least part of the debt or let the district pay what it owes late.

McAllen ISD committed $4 million to an expansion project at Quinta Mazatlan and $2 million to an expansion project at IMAS in 2021. It billed both contributions as being beneficial to students and the community.

Both of those expansion projects are underway. The district still owes a little over $3 million to Quinta and about $1.3 million to IMAS.

The district’s board signed memorandums of understanding related to both of those commitments. Generally speaking, the district received increased hands-on educational opportunities and signage for its investments.

As the district’s financial situation has worsened over the past two years, trustees have occasionally flirted with trying to pull out of those projects.

Monday was the first time the board actually took a concrete step in that direction.

“It’s a tight budget year coming up for everyone, because we haven’t gotten anything new from the state. As I mentioned, ESSER monies are over this year. So we’re just looking for some ways that we could possibly recapture some funds,” Superintendent René Gutiérrez said after the meeting. “So we’re just looking for the possibility of if there’s another way of looking at these commitments. Like if there’s some flexibility that perhaps we can renegotiate some of those amounts to something that we can keep some of those funds and they keep a portion. Or extend the timeline to pay it, instead of now, like two or three years so it gives us time to work with our budget.”

It’s not clear whether the city of McAllen, which owns Quinta, or IMAS will extend the district any wiggle room.

Neither entity says they were contacted by the school district about opening discussions prior to the topic popping up on the school board’s agenda.

McAllen City Manager Roy Rodriguez declined Tuesday to speculate on whether the city would be able to forgive part of the district’s debt or extend the timeline for payment.

“As of today, we have a MOU. The school district has committed $4 million, and that’s what I expect. And so, until I hear from them, I can’t say anything different,” he said.

Rodriguez also noted that he met with Gutiérrez in December, gave him a copy of the memorandum of understanding and discussed the terms it outlined. He also said the city is on track to expect payment imminently.

“That MOU stipulates the reimbursement process, so I’m talking about within days or weeks,” he said.

Finding some sort of slack to cut the school district may be a challenge for IMAS.

IMAS Board President Cassandra Moreno says their expansion project is in the home stretch and that the museum owes vendors reimbursements that will rely on that school district contribution.

“I don’t believe that we have room in the budget to absorb a cost of that size. No, I can say for sure that we do not have room in the budget to absorb a cost of that size,” she said.

Moreno did say that the museum’s happy to sit down and discuss some sort of solution.

So what happens if the city and IMAS decide to hold firm to the agreements the district signed?

On Monday, the board didn’t sound ready to clawback the money without reaching some kind of amicable solution.

They did ask attorney John Ball what would happen if they broke their MOUs.

Ball, seeming slightly uncomfortable, said the district may, hypothetically, be covered through sovereign immunity. Potentially, though, the end result could be McAllen ISD paying its full commitments along with legal fees.

“There’s so many variables I’m leery of saying them all necessarily out in the open,” he said.

Trustees voted to pursue conversations about the commitments in the face of fairly significant pressure.

Several public speakers, mostly Quinta and IMAS board members, showed up Monday to speak out in favor of the projects and urge the district to honor its commitment.

“This is a very valuable and a very fragile relationship, and it’s built on trust, and it’s built on really performing — everybody performing at their level,” Quinta Mazatlan Board of Directors Chair Val LaMantia told the board.

Several school board trustees said concerns of the board unilaterally uncommitting funds from the project were overblown — perhaps even paranoid.

The board’s agenda item for the conversation certainly described uncommitted funds as an immediate possibility for Monday.

Trustees did emphasize that an increasingly dire financial situation is pushing them to reconsider expenditures.

“We’re in a situation. Our budget is in the hole…” Trustee Sofia Pena said. “Moving forward, we need to make sure that we’re making decisions that get us out of that situation and allow us to be able to give teachers more, to do more for our kids and our staff and our community. So we’re not saying go take that money; not at all, at least that’s not what I’m saying…We’re saying let’s all sit down and talk about this.”

The vote to reconsider the commitments wasn’t unanimous. Trustee Erica De La Garza-Lopez didn’t attend Monday’s meeting. Both Board President Debbie Crane Aliseda and Trustee Lizzie Kittleman voted against opening up discussions on the funds.

Kittleman said the district needed to honor its obligations despite the financial situation — which won’t be remedied by a $4.3 million infusion of cash.

“I just don’t think this is the way,” Kittleman said. “I think this is a short term fix that will make a very negative domino effect on the city and our partners.”

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