Ex-San Benito mayor fights firing from school district

SAN BENITO — Is Jack Garcia worth $17,214?

The question is crossing Garcia’s mind, four months after he was fired from his longtime job as the San Benito school district’s after-school program director.

The district said he purchased $17,214 worth of airline tickets without authorization for the district chess team’s trip to a state championship tournament in Houston.

For about 15 years, Garcia says he used his district credit card to buy airline tickets for the chess team he helped develop into champions — and says he never needed the district’s authorization to buy them.

“Never had I made a purchase order prior to the trips,” said Garcia, a former San Benito mayor.

On Jan. 31, he used his district VISA card to buy $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.

Then on Feb. 13, Superintendent Nate Carman reprimanded him for making an unauthorized purchase, ordering him to cancel the reservations, which were nonrefundable, Garcia said.

Carman then chartered a bus to take the chess team to Houston.

On March 28, Carman fired Garcia, who served as the chess team’s coordinator.

“The shame is a man who worked there for 22 years is only worth $17,000 because of the decision of Carman,” Tony Conners, Garcia’s attorney, said.

Now, Garcia claims the VISA credit card company’s documents indicate Carman fired him to comply with its requirements.

The documents state VISA’s Commercial and Business Credit Card Liability Waiver Program requires the buyer of a contested purchase be fired in order for the company to return the money.

Garcia also claims the district may have committed fraud by indicating in a VISA affidavit the $17,214 ticket purchase “does not benefit” the district.

According to Garcia, he chose to fly the chess players, who ranged from kindergarteners to seniors, so they would arrive rested for the 6 p.m. championship tournament that ran late into the night.

The VISA documents also raise other questions, he said.

Garcia said the documents show VISA does not return money in cases in which “those goods or services are of the type which are regularly purchased by or for the” district.

For 15 years, he had used his district credit card to buy airline tickets for the chess team, Garcia said, adding he had always purchased the tickets without the district’s authorization.

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

Carman declined to comment on Garcia’s allegations, with district spokeswoman Isabel Gonzalez describing the case as “a personnel matter.”

However, Gonzalez added, “The district is hereby confirming that Visa has reimbursed the district for the referenced unauthorized expenditures made in regard to student, chess coach, and chaperone travel to the 2019 Texas State Scholastic Chess Championships (‘Super State’), held March 8-11 in Houston, Texas.”

According to Conners, Hilda Rendon, 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 an appeal filed in Garcia’s case against the district.

Conners said Garcia spoke with Madrigal about buying airline tickets for the trip.

Before he bought the tickets, Garcia 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.

“They sacrificed Jack in order to cover the bad decision to cancel the airline tickets that resulted in the $17,000 loss,” Conners said. “They falsely stated the airline tickets didn’t benefit the district, falsely stated they were not customary purchases, falsely stated that Jack acted without authorization.”

Now, the credit card company is demanding Garcia pay the $17,214.

“My credit has been affected,” Garcia said. “I can’t move forward with my life with this over me.”

Carman’s side

In a previous statement, Carman stated Garcia was ordered to request the airline reimburse the money he spent on the plane tickets.

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 stated 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 has stated.

Carman also cited the amount of money Garcia spent on the plane tickets.

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.”

Carman has also argued Garcia had previously purchased airline 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.”

Carman has also stated Garcia failed to get the superintendent’s approval to take the chess team on an “overnight trip.”

“In addition, policy … specifies that in-state and out-of-state overnight trips require approval from the superintendent,” the district has stated. “The travel distance, number of students and overall trip-related costs are given careful consideration before the overnight trip receives approval from the superintendent.”

Bus trip

Meanwhile, Carman’s decision to charter a bus for about $6,000 to take the chess team to Houston has drawn some criticism.

Before the bus trip, Conners argued the bus, with its 50-seat capacity, would not allow most of the chaperones to travel, while the six-hour road trip would leave the players tired as they prepared for the competition, Conners said.

Then in April, parents accused the district of endangering their children with the bus trip.

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

During an April school board meeting, 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.

“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 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.”

Meanwhile, 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.”