After school director on leave after airline ticket purchase
By FERNANDO DEL VALLE
SAN BENITO — Accusations stemming from a student trip to the state chess championships are rattling this small, tight-knit community.
For 14 years, Jack Garcia, the district’s after-school program director, apparently had purchased travel tickets for the chess players on the team he helped groom into a state and national contender.
But Garcia’s latest purchase of more than $17,000 worth of airline tickets led Superintendent Nate Carman to place him on paid administrative leave pending an ongoing investigation.
This past week, Garcia, a former San Benito mayor, filed a complaint with the Cameron County District Attorney’s Office, claiming Carman violated the Texas Open Meetings Act when the superintendent read accusations against him during a school board meeting in which residents spoke out about Garcia’s suspension.
According to Carman, Garcia was unauthorized to use his district credit card to buy the tickets because he had failed to obtain a purchase order.
“There are specific procedures and policies in place to make purchases on behalf of the district,” the district stated Friday.
“In addition, policy … specifies that in-state and out-of-state overnight trips require approval from the superintendent. The travel distance, number of students and overall trip-related costs are given careful consideration before the overnight trip receives approval from the superintendent.”
Tony Conners, Garcia’s attorney, argues Carman wrongfully suspended him.
Conners argued Garcia was authorized to purchase the plane tickets because that has been part of his job for years.
“He had authority to make the purchase,” Conners said. “The purchase is part of his job. These purchases were not for personal benefit but for students.”
On Friday, the district denied Carman violated the law.
“The district adheres to and will continue adhering to all provisions of the Texas Open Meetings Act,” the district stated.
During the superintendent’s report at a Feb. 25 school board meeting, Carman, at the request of board President Michael Vargas, read a statement regarding Garcia’s suspension.
The district, Carman added, had recently evaluated procedures overseeing overnight trips to chess tournaments.
The next day, Conners arguing the meeting’s agenda did not include mention of the statement, filed a complaint with the District Attorney’s Office, claiming Carman had violated the Open Meetings Act.
For years, Garcia, the chess program’s coordinator, had bought the chess team airline tickets to travel to tournaments — and district officials knew it was standard practice, Conners said.
“What Jack did this year was no different than what he’s done in the past or what other similar programs do in the Valley,” he said.
According to Conners, Hilda Rendon, the district’s assistant superintendent for finance and operations, and Hector Madrigal, assistant superintendent for academic services, knew Garcia was planning to buy the airline tickets.
Before Garcia bought the tickets, he sent Rendon a text message requesting information on his credit card’s $50,000 purchase limit because he was preparing to the buy the airline tickets, Conners said.
Conners said Garcia also spoke with Madrigal about buying airline tickets for the trip.
“They were fully aware he was making this purchase,” Conners said. “No one had any issue in the 14 years he’d been doing it.”
On Jan. 31, Garcia used his district credit card to buy $17,214 worth of Southwest Airlines tickets to take 42 students and 17 chaperones to the 2019 Texas State Scholastic Chess Championships in Houston March 8 to 11.
On an airline, Conners said, the short flight to Houston would allow the chess players to arrive rested for the 6 p.m. competition that runs late into the night.
“When you’re dealing with taxpayer money, you have to be vigilant on how you spend it. But cost is not the only consideration,” Conners said. “You have to also consider safety and comfort, especially when you’re dealing with a mental competition they have to be rested. If we fly them, they’re going to be rested up.”
On Feb. 6, Garcia submitted a request to take the students on the trip, Conners said.
Then on Feb. 13, Carman reprimanded Garcia for buying the tickets without a purchase order, requesting he cancel the reservations, Conners said.
Meanwhile, he said, the tickets were non-refundable.
On Friday, the district did not respond to a request to address the cancelation of nonrefundable tickets.
Carman also requested Garcia arrange to charter a bus for about $6,000, Conners said.
However, the bus, with its 50-seat capacity, will not allow most of the chaperones to travel, while the six-hour road trip could leave the players tired as they prepare for the competition, Conners said.
On Feb. 20, Carman placed Garcia on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation.
A day after Carman’s public statement, Conners, arguing the board meeting’s agenda did not include mention of the statement, filed a complaint with the District Attorney’s Office, claiming the superintendent had violated the Open Meetings Act.
At the district attorney’s office, Victoria Cisneros, who handles media calls, did not respond to messages requesting comment Friday.