Amid national attention on public schools, one South Texas school district keeps making headlines. Unfortunately for local residents and students, it’s for all the wrong reasons.
For years, wasteful spending and outright corruption have plagued La Joya Independent School District, a low-income district near the southern border in Hidalgo County with about 26,000 students that still spent $400 million this year (with almost 90 percent of the funds coming from outside the district).
Just this year, two of the district’s seven elected school board members and a former administrator have pleaded guilty to federal bribery and corruption charges.
And now a local report says La Joya ISD may be headed for a takeover by the Texas Education Agency.
“In short, things are a mess at the school district,” wrote The Monitor’s Matt Wilson. “The ongoing scandal is a constant source of speculation about who will be the next person to join the lengthening list of Hidalgo County residents bound for the federal pen.”
In January, Trustee Armin Garza resigned after admitting he accepted bribes and kickbacks totaling nearly a quarter-million dollars in exchange for using his influence as a school board member to award contracts to a specific company.
In February, former Assistant Superintendent Jose Luis Morin pleaded guilty to taking bribes in the same scheme as Garza.
Earlier this month, trustee Oscar “Coach” Salinas resigned after pleading guilty to extorting bribes from school district vendors.
Less than a week later, still under a cloud of corruption, the district’s five remaining board members revealed plans to appoint replacements for Garza and Salinas—even though both had more than two years left in their terms.
One of those board members is the district’s former longtime superintendent, Alda Benavides.
On Benavides’ watch, the district earned national notoriety when it opened a $20 million water park and sports complex in 2018. She retired in 2019 under criticism for spending state tax dollars on the complex. Benavides was earning $340,000 a year at the time.
In 2020, Benavides was elected to La Joya’s school board and is now board president.
The board had to postpone the March 9 meeting where they’d planned to consider appointing new trustees, and the items disappeared from the March 23 agenda.
Using government jobs to bilk money out of taxpayers is nothing new in La Joya.
Former La Joya Mayor Fito Salinas, who’d also served on the school board, was indicted in 2020 on federal public corruption charges involving a land-sale swindle and directing a city contract to his daughter. He pleaded guilty in July.
Another La Joya school board member, J.J. Garza, resigned in 2017 and pleaded guilty to federal wire fraud in a construction bid-rigging scheme connected to his job as the city’s public housing director.
With federal and state authorities scrutinizing La Joya ISD, it’s likely the board will order special elections for the two seats left vacant by corruption convictions.
Three other LJISD board members—Nereyda Cantu, Esperanza Ochoa, and Maria Hernandez—are up for re-election this November.