The Texas Education Agency installed a board of managers and a new superintendent to lead La Joya ISD Thursday after years of corruption at the school district.
Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath described the move as a last resort for the state, but one that’s justified in the case of La Joya.
“First of all you have several board members that are sitting in jail — they’ve been convicted of fraud. And the current board tried to make the argument that that was really an isolated circumstance, but it is — in our judgment and the judgment of our investigators and the review of the administrative law judge that also reviewed this case — it is not isolated,” he said. “These are ongoing ethical dilemmas and an inability of the board as a whole to put aside their own interests and focus solely on meeting the needs of kids.”
The TEA launched an investigation into the district after two former trustees and three former administrators pleaded guilty to corruption charges.
Ultimately, the state recommended a board of managers, the most significant level of intervention — last year.
Morath says that the corruption that justifies intervention — the illicit spending of hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars — has a very real impact on people in the community.
“Imagine what you otherwise could have had. Additional counselors, more novels for kids to take home and read. More after school programs, more early childhood education programs. Any number of things that the resources could buy,” he said.
The district’s new superintendent is Marcey Sorensen, a deputy superintendent for the Virginia Department of Education and former Fort Worth ISD administrator.
Morath described her as competent and qualified.
“She’s really just relentlessly focused on meeting the needs of children,” he said.
Morath had the option of leaving the district’s previous superintendent, Heriberto “Beto” Gonzalez, in the spot.
Morath described the decision to replace Gonzalez not as an indictment of his work at the district, which he complimented. He said, however, that the state generally aims for a clean break with a board of managers.
The board of managers includes:
> Julian Alvarez III
>Celso Gomez, Jr.
“They’re really a tremendous group of citizens. They have a diverse background, you’ve got business leaders, you’ve got parents, former educators, folks that have expertise in a wide range of fields,” Morath said.
The district, led by a four-trustee majority on its school board, resisted intervention tooth and nail for the better part of a year.
Those trustees argued that the district’s scandals were the result of the crimes of a few bad apples.
They argued, resisting intervention, that the district had successfully reformed.
“We’re paying for other people’s sins,” Esmer Solis, who became board president late last year, said Thursday afternoon.
Money that former board president Alex Cantu made from a nonprofit associated with the school district and his inability to remember what he did to earn it proved the central point of a hearing on intervention last summer.
After that hearing and the ruling of an administrative law judge that wasn’t favorable to the district, Solis and the three other trustees in the majority took the extraordinary step of voting to give up their seats if the state would agree to not installing a board of managers.
It didn’t work.
Morath said though the TEA explored that option, “ongoing challenges” justify the reset at the top. He avoided elaborating on those challenges in specific but did allude to them generally.
“What you would want to see is anybody that is associated with any ethical dilemmas that were there before to realize that ‘My presence is not helping this district focus on children and I shouldn’t be here anymore,’” he said. “Again, these are unpaid roles. Why wouldn’t someone step aside in the best interest of kids?”
By all appearances, the state succeeded in keeping trustees in the dark about the decision till the last moment.
Solis said she didn’t know the takeover was coming until it had already happened Thursday morning. She wasn’t formally told about it, she said, until 11 Thursday morning — when she received an email telling her to hand over district electronics.
By early afternoon, Sorensen had met with her executive leadership team and was preparing to meet with the press.
TEA personnel, including Deputy Commissioner of Governance Steve Lecholop, were at the district.
Someone, by that time, had taken down the photos of school board members that hung in the district administration building’s lobby.
Both Sorensen and Alvarez said the process has moved exceptionally quickly — Sorensen left Virginia only days ago.
Solis described a majority of trustees as “distraught.”
“We feel like criminals. It felt like a drug raid,” Solis said. “They came in and did it this early morning where they caught everybody off guard.”
Districts have in the past resisted state intervention in court.
Morath says he’s hopeful the takeover doesn’t go that direction.
Solis says she’s not aware if litigation is an option, or if she’d pursue it.
“I’m not trying to fight something — I don’t have anything against anybody that’s coming in as a board of managers,” she said. “If they’re here to do what’s best for the district, I support that. However, I’m just disappointed with how it happened.”
That leaves Sorensen and her new board with significant work to do: they’re leading a district with a reputation for bad behavior that’s facing significant enrollment and financial issues, one that’s faced those issues with often dysfunctional leadership for periods during the past few years.
Sorensen and Alvarez, speaking to press Thursday, largely declined to get into specifics. Asked about finances, corruption reform and the district’s executive leadership team, they said they intend to explore issues in the next 90 days.
“Well, I’ll come back and I’ll tell you after I learn more,” Sorensen said on the subject of finances. “We know that it’s about to be budget season, right, so as I meet with the team more and I learn more about where are we fiscally, where are we financially…I can come back and share what the budget forecast looks like.”
Why do Alvarez and the other members of the board of managers want to take on the challenge of La Joya ISD? He said that, ultimately, the good outweighs the bad — and the new board can augment that.
“Why not?” he said. “I mean, we’ve got great kids here. It’s certainly going to be reflective of some of the folks that are going to serve on our board.”
Sorensen also fielded questions about how she’ll adapt to the Rio Grande Valley culturally. She’s spent her career working at districts north — often considerably north — of the Valley. She speaks no Spanish.
Sorensen dealt with that potentially awkward question deficit deftly.
“Do I anticipate that there might be some trepidation and some skepticism whether I can communicate with the largely Spanish-speaking populations? Absolutely. But in my experience in the past, again, serving large Hispanic communities in Chicago, it wasn’t a problem. We found ways to communicate with our families and our community, whether it was through translation services or print or media. Anything that we did was in the language of the community,” she said.
It’s not clear how long the district will have a board of managers at its helm.
Morath says the TEA will review the district after two years. If it’s not content with where it stands, the state could extend the board’s term.
The state will also gradually revert the district out of intervention, phasing out members of the board of managers and replacing them with trustees.
“I’m optimistic that this will be a relatively short intervention, but it’s hard to say with specificity,” Morath said.