SAN BENITO — Days after a judge ordered his suspension from office in what’s being called a precedent-setting case, San Benito school board President Michael Vargas is resigning, nearly six months after his arrest on a driving while intoxicated charge.
On Monday, school board members are scheduled to “discuss and accept” Vargas’ resignation during a special meeting.
“The resignation can only become effective when the board accepts it,” Jose Caso, an attorney representing Vargas, said yesterday.
Thursday evening, the school district announced Vargas is resigning — a week after state District Judge Manuel Bañales ordered his suspension on the grounds of intoxication.
Vargas’ resignation will allow school board members to appoint his replacement, possibly during Monday’s meeting, district spokeswoman Isabel Gonzalez stated.
During a Dec. 13 hearing in 107th state District Court, Bañales said he would appoint Vargas’ replacement based on applications from San Benito residents.
But upon Vargas’ resignation, the school board would appoint his replacement, Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz said yesterday.
Vargas’ resignation would close the civil removal case, Assistant District Attorney Edward Sandoval has stated.
Yesterday, Vargas did not respond to requests for comment on his resignation.
“We must focus on the success of our students,” Superintendent Nate Carman stated in a press release announcing Vargas is resigning. “Our main priority is and will always be to produce graduates that are lifelong learners.”
In the press release, Gonzalez states officials will face the district’s “challenges” while working toward their goals, including moving ahead with a $40 million project funded through last year’s bond issue to build a performing arts theater, an aquatics center and an indoor sports practice field.
“Regardless of the public challenges it faces, San Benito schools continue to foster (the) mandate to become the gold standard in all areas of public education,” she states. “The district will proudly usher its students to new possibilities and successes by improving existing infrastructures and investing in new ones — such as our indoor sports facility, aquatics center and state-of-the-art performing arts center.”
As the school board’s president, Vargas has served as the board’s leader and the district’s spokesman.
Elected to the board’s Place 1 seat in May 2015, Vargas has served as its president since May 2017.
Last year, he won re-election to the term expiring in May 2021.
DA requests job records
Before the school officials announced Vargas was resigning, the district attorneys’ office continued to work to build its case against him.
Earlier this week, Sandoval notified the city of Pharr, where Vargas works as a public affairs liaison, he would request “the University of Texas at Brownsville” release “all employment documents relating to Michael A. Vargas, including (and) not limited to Michael A. Vargas’ employment application.”
The civil removal case against Vargas stems from residents’ petition requesting the court remove him from office as a result of his July 5 DWI charge.
During last week’s hearing, Caso said he believes the case sets a state precedent.
Under Texas Government Code Chapter 87, the rarely applied law allows residents to petition the court to remove elected officials from office on such grounds as intoxication.
On Oct. 2, Janie Lopez and San Benito residents Rosalinda Garcia, Ramon Santos and Oscar Medrano, a former school board member, filed the petition.
“It’s important for us to keep holding our elected officials accountable,” Lopez, the district’s former Guidance and Counseling coordinator who spearheaded the petition drive, said yesterday. “If they don’t keep up with their performance and ethics, that’s when we need to take action — and our action was successful.”
Lopez also credited Vargas for working to improve students’ education.
“I applaud Michael for all the team work done in the district during his civil service duty to our kids,” she stated. “At the end of the day, the students and their education are most important for the future. Michael’s resignation does not mean the district will be at a halt. We have great teachers, staff, administrators and other board members to continue making important decisions to meet gold standards.”
During last week’s two-hour hearing, Bañales ordered Vargas suspended pending the judge’s appointment of a replacement.
Vargas would have remained suspended until an April 13 trial, when a jury was expected to decide whether to remove him from the school board.
During the hearing, Caso claimed the law was unconstitutional, arguing it undermines the electoral process and violates the sanctity of the vote.
Caso also argued the petitioners targeted Vargas with the law which he claimed “discriminates against elected officials.”
“There have been countless county officials who have been intoxicated,” he said. “There’s an overly broad definition of intoxication. It’s got to be habitual. In this case, the petitioners are presenting one incident of drunkenness. In this case, there’s no habitual problem demonstrated.”
Meanwhile, Dan Sanchez, the former Cameron County commissioner representing Vargas in the criminal case charging him with driving while intoxicated, argued the petitioners aimed to remove his client to shift power from the school board’s majority which supports him.
“It’s political,” Sanchez told Bañales. “It’s about control of the school board.”
Bañales overruled the attorneys’ arguments.
Taking the witness stand, Vargas repeatedly evoked the Fifth Amendment’s protection against self-incrimination.
However, when Bañales ordered him to answer Sandoval’s question regarding a previous arrest, Vargas testified he had been arrested for driving under the influence in Missouri but didn’t know if he had been convicted.
On the witness stand, Harlingen Police Officer Arnoldo Maldonado testified Vargas was incoherent when he was arrested for drunk driving at about 2 a.m. July 5 at a Taco Bell restaurant at 1518 N. Ed Carey Drive.
Maldonado testified he found Vargas sleeping in his vehicle, whose engine was running while it stalled in the fast-food restaurant’s drive-through lane.
Meanwhile, Megan Huerta, a forensics scientist with the Texas Department of Public Safety in Weslaco, testified Vargas’ blood-alcohol level was 0.256 — over the legal limit of 0.08 — at the time of his arrest.
Pending DWI charge
Despite the civil removal case’s closure, Vargas continues to face a DWI charge.
Last month in Cameron County Court at Law No. 5, visiting Judge Leonel Alejandro set a Feb. 6 jury trial during an arraignment hearing stemming from Saenz’s decision to upgrade Vargas’ DWI charge from a Class B to a Class A misdemeanor based on his 0.256 blood-alcohol level at the time of his arrest.
As a result, prosecutors are counting what records show as Vargas’ first drunken driving charge as his second DWI charge, Saenz said during an interview last month.
The upgraded charge boosts the offense’s potential penalty from six months in jail and a $2,000 fine to one year in jail and a $4,000 fine.
During the hearing, Alejandro upheld a previous court order requiring Vargas to equip his vehicle with a breath alcohol ignition interlock device featuring a camera.
During an Oct. 1 hearing, Judge Estella Chavez Vazquez ordered Vargas to install the devise, which does not allow a vehicle’s engine to start if the motorist’s breath contains a blood-alcohol level higher than the legal limit of 0.08 percent.
According to a court document, Chavez Vasquez also prohibited Vargas from drinking alcohol or taking drugs before driving.