Parents claim bus ride endangered students

Garcia appeals reprimand for buying $17,000 plane tickets

SAN BENITO — Fallout stemming from a state chess tournament continues to muddle the school district.

Earlier this week, parents accused the district of endangering their children when a bus driver transporting chess players planned to keep driving despite faltering air brakes.

Meanwhile, Jack Garcia, the district’s former longtime after-school program director, appealed his reprimand for the unauthorized purchase of $17,000 worth of plane tickets whose cancelation led to the bus trip to and from Houston.

The reprimand led to Garcia’s firing March 28.

After Garcia, the chess team’s coordinator, bought the plane tickets, Superintendent Nate Carman reprimanded him, ordering him to cancel the nonrefundable reservations.

Instead, the district chartered a bus to take the students to the state championship chess tournament in Houston.

But the bus broke down March 11, leaving the chess team stranded in Refugio, parents said.

Late last month, Carman fired Garcia after about 16 years as director of the after-school program.

During a school board meeting this week, parents Oralia Elorza and Alicia Salazar told board members the district’s decision to bus the chess team jeopardized their sons’ safety.

After the meeting, Elorza and Salazar said they filed complaints demanding the officials be disciplined.

The parents claimed the charter bus broke down in Refugio on March 11, leaving students from kindergarten to 12th grade stranded.

According to the parents’ complaint, the driver was planning to keep driving to Harlingen although the bus’ brakes were losing air pressure.

However, a parent on the trip “convinced” the driver to stop driving, the complaint states.

“I felt all the chess group was in danger and the school district put our children in danger by using a bus charter company. The bus brakes were not working properly on the way back from Houston,” the complaint states.

“We want the school district to hold the individual(s) that came up with this alternative bus plan for Houston Super State Chess Tournament held responsible, liable and be disciplined.”

Yesterday, Superintendent Nate Carman stated the parents’ complaint would receive “due process … adhered to for all complaints received regarding any subject.”

Carman also stated the district regularly buses students to events in cities such as Houston and San Antonio.

“While we are disappointed that the charter bus broke down, we did use an approved bus company. The district regularly uses bus transportation to take large groups of students to Houston, San Antonio, etc.,” Carman stated.

“On the day in question, the average temperature in Refugio was 76 degrees,” he added. “The students and chaperones waited at either McDonald’s or Dairy Queen while the replacement charter bus arrived. Students enjoyed a meal and played chess while waiting.”

Garcia appeals

Meanwhile, Garcia filed an appeal Tuesday, claiming Carman’s reprimand was an attempt to shift the blame for the ill-fated bus trip on him.

“That is, Mr. Garcia is being used as a scapegoat to ‘fade (the) heat’ for the superintendent’s impulsive, questionable and unpopular changes that resulted in negative reactions for the participants of this Houston chess trip, the local media and the community perception,” Tony Conners, Garcia’s attorney, wrote in the appeal.

On Feb. 13, Carman reprimanded Garcia for his Jan. 31 unauthorized purchase of $17,214 worth of Southwest Airlines tickets to fly 42 students and 17 chaperones to the 2019 Texas State Scholastic Chess Championships in Houston March 8 to 11.

Carman also told Garcia to cancel the reservations, which were nonrefundable, Conners argued.

Apparently, Garcia, a former San Benito mayor, stood behind his decision to fly the students to allow them to arrive rested for the 6 p.m. competition that runs late into the night.

“The superintendent decided to issue this reprimand after Mr. Garcia refused to capitulate that he had acted wrongly and he continued to question the wisdom and efficiency of the superintendent overriding his travel as the chess coordinator for this Houston chess trip based on established practices and customs,” Conners wrote in Garcia’s appeal.

For years, Conners argued, Garcia, the chess team’s coordinator, had used his district credit card to buy plane tickets for the team.

However, Carman had recently evaluated procedures overseeing overnight trips to chess tournaments.

“Essentially, the superintendent is reprimanding Mr. Garcia by changing the procedures,” Conners wrote in the appeal.

Conners argued Garcia was authorized to use his district credit card to buy the tickets.

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.

Madrigal and Rendon “raised no objections or concerns before he made these purchases with his credit card as he had done in the past for similar travel without any problem,” Conners wrote in the appeal.

Carman’s side

However, Carman filed a response contradicting Garcia’s claims.

In a March 27 letter to Garcia, Carman states Madrigal “was concerned with the amount being requested to spend as well as with the number of adults requested to travel.”

According to Carman, Rendon “stated that you were to work with Southwest Airlines to obtain a refund. If you were unable to do so, our credit card company had recommended canceling the airline tickets so that we could be reimbursed as these tickets would not be used.”

Carman also argued Garcia had previously purchased plane tickets for farther out-of-state chess competitions and much smaller groups of players.

“Each of these requests is significantly different than the attempt to fly 58 people to Houston,” Carman wrote to Garcia. “It is unreasonable for one to believe that the approval of these trips constitutes a ‘rubber stamp’ for all of Mr. Garcia’s requested travel.”

On March 28, Carman fired Garcia after 22 years with the district.

According to Conners, Carman stated he fired Garcia for making false statements to supervisors, inconsistent application of after-school program processes, use of district funds to benefit family members and insubordination.

Yesterday, Carman declined comment on Garcia’s appeal, describing it as “a personnel matter.”

Timeline

Jan. 31 — Jack Garcia buys $17,000 in plane tickets

Feb. 6 — Garcia submits request to take chess team to Houston

Feb. 13 — Superintendent Nate Carman reprimands Garcia

Feb. 22 — Carman places Garcia on paid administrative leave

March 28 — Carman fires Garcia