The La Joya school district, which drew political fire for using $20 million in general funds to build a water park and learning complex, has settled with the longtime schools superintendent who oversaw the project.
The La Joya school board agreed to pay Alda Benavides a severance of $319,069, the equivalent of her base annual salary, shortly after her retirement takes effect June 30, according to The Monitor newspaper in McAllen (not affiliated with The Texas Monitor). The district will also pay her for 21 weeks of unused vacation and sick pay, the paper reported.
Until that date, Benavides will work as an assistant training the interim superintendent, while earning her full salary.
The only statement concerning the settlement came in a brief letter from school board president Armin Garza. “During her tenure in the school district, Dr. Benavides has admirably provided her leadership to the district under increasingly difficult economic circumstances while maintaining qualified staff and quality instructional programs and initiatives,” Garza wrote.
As has been the case since The Texas Monitor learned that the district was considering replacing Benavides last month, calls to board members for comment were not returned.
As part of its separation agreement with Benavides, all parties have agreed not to discuss anything to do with her departure and “agree not to make disparaging remarks about the other party, their agents, representatives, attorneys or assigns to this agreement,” the McAllen paper reported.
The decision to jettison Benavides came in late February, the same week state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, filed Senate Bill 1133. The bill is aimed at blocking public school districts from using general tax funds for projects like La Joya’s water park, which opened last April.
News of the water park drew the ire of Gov. Greg Abbott, who promised before the start of the current legislative session that projects like La Joya’s would not be underwritten with tax money. In the La Joya district, as in other poorer school districts in Texas, tax money comes largely from outside the district.
In the last budget year, La Joya’s 30,000-student district received $234 million in the so-called Robin Hood redistribution of state education tax money and another $26 million in federal funds.
Prior to the political fallout over the water park, Benavides had flourished in La Joya. She joined the school district as a counselor in 1984 and became superintendent in 2006. A little more than a year ago, the board extended her contract, increased her salary by five percent and gave her grades of “exceptional” in all areas of her performance evaluation.
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].