SAN BENITO — Ten days after a judge ordered school board President Michael Vargas suspended, board members accepted his resignation yesterday, appointing a former law enforcement officer to replace him.
After a 45-minute closed-door meeting, board members reviewed about six candidates before appointing Baldemar Olivarez Jr. to serve in the Place 1 seat until May, when voters will elect a trustee, Orlando Lopez, the board’s new president, said after the special meeting.
Vargas did not attend the meeting.
In his resignation letter, Vargas cited the board’s accomplishments including a staff pay raise, improved student standardized test scores and passage of a $40 million bond issue aimed at building a performing arts center, an aquatics center and an indoor practice field.
“When I first embarked on this elected journey, it was my goal to turn this district around relative to its dysfunction, financial incompetence and leadership instability,” Vargas states in his letter dated Dec. 20.
“We have done exactly that — we have turned the district around in all facets — operationally, financially, leadership, etc. We are indeed a gold-standard district and I am proud of my tenure.”
“As I have done before my tenure as an elected school board member, I will continue to fight the good fight along the periphery, especially fighting those mental models and individuals that seek to destroy the growth and positivity our district has achieved.”
Support for Vargas
In a press release, Lopez stood behind Vargas.
“We appreciate Michael’s service to this district and will always be grateful for his contributions these past several years,” Lopez stated in a press release issued after the meeting. “We are committed to continue leading our district in a forward and positive direction. We have many ongoing projects that will greatly benefit our students for many years to come.”
Superintendent Nate Carman, who did not attend the meeting, also showed his support for Vargas.
“We are thankful for Mr. Vargas’ service to the district and for his contributions in helping SBCISD become the gold standard in all areas of public education,” Carman stated in the press release.
During the meeting, trustees from both sides of the divided board appeared to support Olivarez.
“He’s a staple of the community,” Lopez said after the meeting.
Calling for the board’s reorganization, trustees appointed Lopez as president, Sonia Weaver as vice president and Janie Silva as secretary.
Vargas’ resignation allowed school board members to appoint his replacement.
On December 13 in 107th state District Court, visiting Judge Manuel 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.
However, Vargas’ resignation closed the civil case against him, removing Bañales’ authority to appoint a replacement, Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz said last week.
In what’s being called a precedent-setting case, Bañales ordered Vargas suspended on the grounds of intoxication nearly six months after his arrest for driving while intoxicated.
Elected to the board’s Place 1 seat in May 2015, Vargas had served as its president since May 2017.
Last year, he won re-election to the term which was to expire in May 2021.
How we got here
Vargas’ resignation closes a turbulent period.
In August, board members Angel Mendez and Mary Lou Garcia called on the board’s majority to remove Vargas as president, arguing his arrest sends students the wrong message.
However, the board’s majority voted to keep him at their leader and district spokesman.
Then on Oct. 2, San Benito residents Janie Lopez, Rosalinda Garcia, Ramon Santos and Oscar Medrano, a former school board member, filed a petition calling on the court to remove Vargas on the grounds of intoxication.
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.
During last week’s hearing, Jose Caso, an attorney representing Vargas, said he believes the case sets a state precedent.
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 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.