The La Joya Independent School District board Monday night approved an undisclosed financial settlement with the superintendent who oversaw construction of a $20 million learning center and water park.
Alda Benavides, superintendent of the district near the southern tip of Texas since 2006, did not attend the board meeting, according to the Mission Progress Times. She had been given exceptional performance marks and a five percent pay raise a year ago. The board issued a statement saying Benavides had “announced her retirement.”
Board members did not discuss specific terms of the agreement. Benavides was earning more than $340,000 a year, according to Texas Education Agency data, with a contract that had been extended through 2021.
Since speculation about the ouster of Benavides began earlier this month, the water park, which has drawn statewide criticism, has not been mentioned as a reason for the buyout.
The board also elected a new president, Claudia Ochoa. She told a Progress Times reporter she would not comment on Benavides’ departure, which she considered a personnel matter.
“An agreement has been reached which allows Dr. Benavides the ability to retire and to pursue other interests and permits the Board to pursue hiring another superintendent,” the statement says. “The board and Dr. Benavides have entered into the agreement believing it is in their respective best interests and in the best interests of the district.”
The statement expresses the board’s appreciation for Benavides’ contributions to the district and lists seven of the most notable. The learning center and water park are notably missing from the list.
“As a whole we just want to extend our gratitude to Ms. Benavides for everything that she’s done,” outgoing board president Armin Garza told the Progress Times. “We’re not at liberty to speak in regards to Dr. B. at this moment.
The board appointed Assistant Superintendent Gisela Saenz as interim superintendent while a new superintendent is being chosen.
Benavides and La Joya were little known outside of the Valley until last April, when the school district announced the opening of the only water park in the state financed from general funds. The complex includes an Olympic-style swimming pool, planetarium and technology center.
Because the low-income, 30,000-student district gets almost all of its operating capital from state and federal tax money, news of the $20 million expenditure piqued elected officials, who have said they are making school finance reform a priority in this legislative session.
State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, filed Senate Bill 1133 Tuesday to prohibit school districts from spending general tax funds on projects like the La Joya water park. State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, who represents the La Joya district, is one of the co-authors.
At the time of the water park’s grand opening, Benavides was effusive in her praise of the project for providing opportunities that her low-income students might not otherwise get.
As outside criticism grew and the district acknowledged the water park and the district-owned golf course had lost $550,000 last year, Benavides and board members went silent about the project.
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].