South Texas school district challenged on spending to promote bond proposal

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Edinburg

Two residents of the Edinburg school district are seeking a temporary restraining order to stop the district from alleged illegal spending of public funds to promote a May bond election.

Jane Cross, who last year lost a bid to become Hidalgo county judge, and Jerry Rivera filed suit, contending the district is using taxpayer money to print brochures and hold public hearings in support of the $220 million bond.

State statute prohibits use of public funds to support a bond measure.

Among the exhibits in the case is a two-page color brochure that tells voters that the election is an opportunity to alleviate crowded schools and provide more career opportunities for the students, using the tagline “trust and transparency.”

The lawsuit also cites a $100,000 study paid for by the district that documents what could be a decline in the district’s need for more schools, rather than the increase the district cites in its presentations.

“Most districts do this — use public resources to promote bonds — but no one says anything and usually they pass,” said attorney Javier Villalobos, representing the plaintiffs.  “It’s okay to disseminate information, but you cannot have these meetings with parents and presentations for the bond using school facilities, paying for utilities and the costs that come with that.”

In 2015 Villalobos represented three residents who filed suit against the McAllen school district, accusing the district of using taxpayer funds to advocate for a bond package. While the suit was dismissed, the election measure failed.

Edinburg officials insist the district is simply doing what it is supposed to do: providing information about the bond proposal and only that.

“When you put a bond issue on the ballot, the election code says you can distribute factual information about it,” said Kevin O’Hanlon, who is representing the Edinburg district. “[Opponents] say that by innuendo, the district is trying to make itself look good and you should not be able to use district resources to do that. The question is, can we distribute the materials we have printed.”

O’Hanlon said the proper mechanism to halt the disputed information campaign would be a complaint filed with the Texas Ethics Commission.

Villalobos said that with a little over two weeks before early voting starts, the ethics commission wouldn’t be able to act quickly enough to address the alleged problem.

A hearing on the TRO motion is set for Thursday in Hidalgo county court.

Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].

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