La Joya Independent School District, located in the Rio Grande Valley, is fighting back against a takeover by the Texas Education Agency.

In early March, the TEA announced it would take over the biggest school district in Texas, Houston ISD, after one of their high schools received a failing grade for the seventh consecutive year and a state investigation uncovered evidence of malfeasance among the board of trustees and other district staff.

Now, La Joya ISD could meet the same fate.

The district, home to 38 schools and serving more than 24,000 students, has been plagued with scandals among their elected board of trustees and other district staff.

In March 2022, Education Commissioner Mike Morath authorized a special investigation to be conducted by TEA to address alleged violations tied to the district’s trustees and staff.

The investigation exposed multiple accounts of LJISD officials committing crimes that included theft, bribery, money laundering, extortion, and wire fraud.

In June 2019, the board of trustees entered into energy savings contracts with Performance Services Incorporated, which then hired companies recommended by trustees Armin Garza, Luis Morin, and Alex Guajardo. The subcontractors overcharged for the projects they were awarded, and funds from the overcharges were used to pay kickbacks to Garza, Morin, and Guajardo. All three pleaded guilty to federal public corruption charges.

In March 2022, trustee Oscar Salinas pleaded guilty to federal extortion charges relating to a separate kickback scheme involving school district contracts.

In August 2022, LJISD central office administrator Rodrigo Lopez pleaded guilty to federal charges of theft and bribery for issuing cash payments to a district employee in exchange for approving a purchase from a business owned by Lopez.

Despite the findings from the investigation, La Joya ISD trustees voted 4-3 in May to fight TEA’s plan to replace the elected school board with a state-appointed board of managers. Trustees in the low-income district also hired the law firm of high-profile attorney John Scott to take on TEA.

According to documents obtained by Progress Times, the district agreed to pay Scott $750 an hour. Scott was later appointed as interim Texas attorney general on May 31, and another attorney with the firm is reportedly handling the case at a rate of $550 an hour.

A state administrative law court judge is set to hear LJISD’s case on July 31. If the court doesn’t block the state’s intervention, Commissioner Morath will appoint a board of managers from within the community to replace the board.

Emily Medeiros

Emily graduated from the University of Oklahoma majoring in Journalism. She is excited to use her research and writing skills to report on important issues around Texas.