A major victory for residents in western Hidalgo County occurred on Election Night as residents elected businesswoman Mary T. Hernandez to La Joya Independent School District’s Board of Trustees Place 3.
On November 14, La Joya ISD hosted a swearing-in ceremony for three of the newly elected school board members. It began with an unusually grandiose event for outgoing members, with mariachis and video presentations. To the chagrin of the audience, once the actual swearing-in ceremonies were about to commence, Board President Armin Garza notified them they would have to wait “10 minutes” for the official canvass results before continuing. But as 10 minutes turned into an hour and a half, attendees became hungry and frustrated, and slowly began to leave without seeing their candidates sworn in.
Many in the audience were unaware of what was occurring and assumed this was the norm, as school board members didn’t clarify that La Joya ISD had not received the official canvass results from Hidalgo County Elections Department. When asked for an explanation for the delay, Garza said, “The Elections Department promised the results by 12:00 noon. If we have to wait any longer, we will postpone festivities.”
Hidalgo County Elections Administrator Yvonne Ramon told Texas Scorecard her office advised the district to set their canvassing for Thursday, November 15. “We wouldn’t have the official count until the ballot board was done on Wednesday, and that takes all day.”
“They knew the results weren’t ready,” Ramon said. “Everyone knew.”
However, those in the audience didn’t. One school employee (who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation) stated these types of procedures are an example of the board’s lack of respect for constituents, saying “the people want change, that’s why we voted for Mary.”
The other two favored candidates who were sworn in were Nereyda Cantu and Espie Ochoa. Both were part of the “Un1ted for Education” slate that included Johnny Alaniz, who lost to Hernandez. After waiting two hours, Cantu and Ochoa both boasted in their speeches that, “La Joya ISD is the place the be.” The tone of their remarks drew a stark contrast to Hernandez’s statement that she’s “willing to work together to make it a better district.”
La Joya is home to an estimated 4,000 people, making it one of the largest school districts in the RGV, with a student population over 29,000 and an annual budget over $358 million.
In such a small town, where the biggest employer is the school district, most dismiss reckless spending habits (such as La Joya ISD’s water park) and intimidation practices as the norm.
Running against the grain, Hernandez has single-handedly become the face of transparency in this western part of Hidalgo County, and she’s been vocal in expressing concerns about the district.
“People would call me and tell me about their problems with the district. I felt helpless not doing anything for them, so that’s why I decided to run. I want to help,” she said.
Her involvement stems from various issues throughout the past year, including an occasion where she questioned “$377,000 being awarded simply to replace air filters,” in turn leading the school district to restrict access to public information.
Additionally, during a special meeting of the school board, she discouraged another pay raise for Superintendent Alda Benavidez, whose current salary is $326,000, and succeeded in postponing the item on the agenda. She has also repeatedly questioned the reported intimidation practices used on school employees by the district.
School board members publicly dismissed her concerns as well as her candidacy, yet she is now serving as a school board member acting as a voice for her constituents. “I spent $50,000 on my campaign because I knew the residents didn’t have a voice,” she said. “I knew I would win because I felt the students, teachers, and the district as a whole wanted change.”
After two and a half hours waiting to be sworn in, election results revealed Hernandez received a whopping 58.81 percent (6,711 votes), more than any of the other winning candidates. One school employee said, “They wanted a miracle to change the results.” As an entrepreneur, Hernandez says she hopes to bring balance and fiscal responsibility to the district.
La Joya’s newly elected officials will sit on their first school board meeting on November 28.