After receiving blistering fire from top state officials for spending $20 million on a learning center featuring a water park, the La Joya Independent School district may be in for a wholesale shakeup of its leadership, including a buyout of the superintendent’s contract.
The district’s board of trustees has scheduled a special meeting Monday to further discuss and possibly take action on the employment of Superintendent Alda Benavides. In turn, Benavides has included on the agenda discussion and possible action on the reorganization of the board of trustees.
The action by the board to possibly remove Benavides comes a little more than a year after the district extended her contract by a year and gave her a five percent pay raise, bringing her annual salary to more than $340,000.
Trustees at the time gave Benavides “exceptional” grades in every area of her performance evaluation, then-board President Oscar Salinas told the Progress Times, the newspaper in Mission.
Benavides was named superintendent in 2006, having served in a variety of teaching and administrative roles since being hired as a counselor in 1984.
The Texas Monitor on Friday contacted Benavides, each of the seven members of the board and three attorneys for the district for comment on the personnel changes, but had heard back from none of them before publication.
The flurry of official action by La Joya follows criticism of the water park by Gov. Greg Abbott and other ranking Republicans who have made public school spending reform a priority in this legislative session.
“The State will add more funding for education. But it won’t fund water park projects like this,” Abbott said in a Dec. 16 tweet reported by The Texas Monitor.
In response, state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, a member of the Senate’s finance and education committees, told The Texas Monitor he intends to file a bill next week to prohibit school districts from spending general fund money on extravagances like water parks.
After hearing about the possible changes at La Joya Friday, Bettencourt said, “I am not surprised. Finally, the district is heading in a different direction. It was preposterous that any ISD would buy a water park and a golf course, much less run these venues at an operating loss! They must be divested, and no district will ever do this again once this bill is passed.”
Like many low-income school districts, La Joya, with its 30,000 students and teacher-administrator staff of 4,400, gets most of its general fund money from state taxes. In the last budget year, La Joya, near the southern tip of the state, received $234 million in the so-called Robin Hood redistribution and another $26 million in federal funds.
At the grand opening of the park in April, Benavides said, “It’s very exciting. I think it’s a dream come true and it will provide a lot of opportunities for kids. Sometimes, this could be the only water park these kids get to see and there’s no price for that.”
In its first year in operation, however, the water park lost nearly $250,000 and the adjacent golf course, the only school district-owned course in Texas, lost $300,000.
A review of Benavides’ future with the district began with her re-evaluation at a special meeting Feb. 6. The discussion carried over to a special meeting on Monday, where the board approved an evaluation of Benavides done in a closed session, the results of which were not released to the public.
A journalist for the Progress Times who attended the Monday meeting reported that unnamed sources in that closed meeting said a majority of the board wants Benavides removed.
Even though the board had earlier extended her contract through August 2021, several trustees said in private they favored buying Benavides out. A buyout is likely to cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to the Progress Times.
Neither Benavides, any of the board members, or board attorneys commented publicly after the meeting.
Matthew Benavides, the superintendent’s son, posted a message on Facebook after the meeting: “For those asking what happened with my mom, the school board is giving her no choice but to negotiate buying out her contract so she will be removed from her position. Thank you for your prayers.”
The Texas Monitor tried unsuccessfully to reach Matthew Benavides for further comment.
The involvement of Garza and Salinas, the former board president, in a possible buyout comes less than year after their own severance packages totalling $489,000 from the Agua Special Utility District in Palmview were investigated by the Texas Rangers.
In the 2017 legislative session, state Sen. Chuy Hinojosa, D-McAllen, succeeded in getting a bill passed that broke up the four-member La Joya school district majority on the Agua SUD board.
Hidalgo County District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez asked the Texas Rangers to investigate the propriety of the utility district giving Garza, its utility project manager, a $268,000 severance and Salinas, its outreach coordinator, a severance of $221,000.
In August, Rodriguez announced that the investigation had not produced enough evidence for charges to be brought.
On the agenda for Monday’s special meeting, signed by Benavides, an item listed under “Superintendent’s Report” is a discussion and possible action on a reorganization of the La Joya school board. No explanation of the item or further information about the reorganization was included on the agenda.
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].