RGC school board trustees argue over finances

RIO GRANDE CITY — Ever since Rio Grande City school board Trustee Eleazar Velasquez was appointed board president last summer, he has advocated for unity, stressing that there aren’t, or at least shouldn’t be, any factions. But political divisions within the board have never faded, and during Monday’s board meeting, those differences were just as evident as ever.

It all began with an announcement from Trustee Leticia O. Lopez, who has been battling cancer, that her medical exam results showed her health was in stable condition.

After she thanked the community for their prayers and support, she turned to Trustee Basilio “Bacho” Villarreal.

“This is very hurtful for me, but it’s been bothering me and it’s important to let you know that I was crushed with the statement that you made — basically a death wish — that I would be dead by December and I would not be here January.”

Villarreal loudly and vehemently denied making that statement, calling it “an absolutely lie.”

“My father died of cancer, my sister died of cancer, that’s a horrible disease,” Villarreal said. “I don’t wish that on anybody.”

True or not, the exchange, which occurred just after the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, set the tone for the rest of the meeting — the board’s first since November.

Many items on the agenda went without action after the board, which is evenly split between six members after Trustee Daniel J. Garcia was ordered temporarily suspended in November, was unable to reach a consensus on them.

However, they were able to pass a few key items, such as calling for a bond election and authorizing a financial analysis for possible salary raises. The latter, though, was approved with three of the board members abstaining from the vote.

Those three members, Villarreal, Eduardo “Eddie” Ramirez and Noe Castillo, had issued a statement in December expressing disappointment that a December board meeting, during which they had hoped to approve wage increases for employees, had been canceled.

The statement was posted on the Facebook page “Hope For Rgccisd,” the political slate on which they ran together during the 2018 school board elections.

According to Villarreal, the trio opposed the item on Monday’s agenda because it only called for an analysis on whether the increases were feasible, unlike the item they proposed in December, which approved wage increases.

“How did we get to this?” Villarreal asked Superintendent Vilma Garza.

“Sir, this is the first step,” Garza replied, adding she presented Villarreal’s proposed item to Velasquez, the board president, in a preliminary draft of the agenda.

“The item on this agenda is a preliminary step and addresses the topic of your request,” Velasquez said.

The members proceeded to spar verbally over the school district’s finances, with Villarreal pointing out that the board was claiming a fund balance of $40 million.

“We’re also claiming our deficit (is over $9 million),” Velasquez said. “So what I want to know is, if it’s feasible for the school district to allow us to give away that money to our staff.”

Trustee Daria Babineaux said previous wage increases were partly to blame for their current deficit.

“I don’t think anybody at this table disagrees with the fact that our teachers, our administrators, our maintenance workers, our cafeteria workers — everybody that serves this district — deserves to make affordable wages for all that they contribute,” Babineaux said. “But the facts are that the deficit we have, and are still struggling with, are the fallout from us not doing an investigation on increasing wages considerably more than we can afford.”

The motion to approve the financial analysis passed with Velasquez, Babineaux and Lopez voting in favor of it while Villarreal, Castillo, and Ramirez abstained.

Throughout the meeting, the trustees had heated discussions about hiring more technicians in the maintenance department and payment for school board attorney Rene P. Montalvo, who was hired in October.

Another lengthy back-and-forth began when the trustees were voting on whether to approve their annual financial audit.

When asked how about the district’s budget deficit, Diana Robles-Mendez, the district’s chief financial officer, said it was a little over $9 million.

“We can’t continue this way, right?” Villarreal said.

“I agree with you sir,” Robles-Mendez replied.

That amount, however, is an improvement from their deficit of about $14 million just two years earlier.

When Villarreal pressed Robles-Mendez about their improved financial standing, she said there were many reasons, but also acknowledged the district received a little over $10 million in settlements from construction lawsuits.

Babineaux pointed out the district had also made significant reductions in other expenditures, but some of the trustees kept returning to the issue of what had been done with funds from the settlements.

Ramirez asked Robles-Mendez how much of the settlement funds had been earmarked to address the problems with the schools that had led to those lawsuits in the first place.

Robles-Mendez said the district made A/C repairs at Rio Grande City High School and La Grulla High School. She added an engineer consulted the district about drainage issues at RGC High School, but the work has not begun.

“Over the years we’ve gotten tens of millions of dollars in lawsuits correct?” Villarreal asked. “How much do you speculate we’ve spent on fixing schools?”

Robles-Mendez said she didn’t have the numbers.

“It’s not very much, correct?” Villarreal said.

“Correct,” she replied.

Garza, the superintendent, assured them her staff was working on addressing those issues.

“We want to do this the right way,” she said.

“We want an architect to give us the specs so we can go out for an RFP so we can take care of all these issues,” she said, referring to a request for proposals that is issued when districts are seeking applicants for contract work.

“So we are working on that. We have been working on that,” Garza said.