A South Texas school district plagued with public corruption scandals is the latest target of a takeover by the state agency that oversees government education.
The Texas Education Agency announced Thursday the appointment of a seven-member board of managers and a new superintendent to temporarily lead La Joya Independent School District.
The agency said the intervention “is the result of a comprehensive TEA investigation that substantiated allegations of fraud and conflicts of interest executed by members of the elected LJISD Board of Trustees.”
La Joya ISD is a low-income district in the Rio Grande Valley that receives 90 percent of its revenue from outside the district. Only 40 percent of the district’s 24,000 students perform at grade level across all subjects.
The district is rife with corruption.
Takeover talk began in 2022, when U.S. attorneys charged two school board trustees and three district administrators with federal financial crimes committed from 2017 through 2020.
LJISD Trustees Armin Garza and Oscar Salinas—along with central office administrators Alex Guajardo, Luis Morin, and Rodrigo Lopez—pleaded guilty to federal charges of bribery, theft, money laundering, extortion, and wire fraud.
Commissioner of Education Mike Morath said in his February 1 decision to appoint a board of managers that the corruption charges and guilty pleas, “as well as other complaints TEA received about the board’s alleged fraud and violations of law,” prompted him to authorize the agency to conduct a special investigation.
After almost two years of investigations, reports, hearings, and an appeal by the district, TEA found sufficient grounds to place La Joya ISD under the highest level of state-appointed governance.
TEA’s special investigation report documented two allegations against the district that Morath determined warranted a temporary takeover.
First, La Joya ISD officials failed to oversee and manage the district or make effective use of community resources to serve the public and students, creating an environment that “facilitated trustees’ and administrators’ engagement in various criminal acts and conspiracies.”
Second, school trustees failed to ensure district compliance with disclosure requirements for certain business and familial relationships.
The district argued that the board should not be culpable for “rogue individuals’ bad acts.”
Prior to the TEA investigation, La Joya ISD earned national notoriety when it opened a $20 million water park and sports complex in 2018. Then-Superintendent Alda Benavides, who was receiving a $340,000 salary, retired in 2019 under criticism for spending state tax dollars on the complex. In 2020, she was elected to La Joya’s school board and served until the appointed board members took over.
The new board of managers will be in place for up to four years, depending on when the commissioner determines no further intervention is required. Then the TEA will set a timeline for the district to transition back to elected trustee control.
Last year, TEA began a temporary takeover of Houston ISD—the largest school district in the state—due to persistent academic failures at some campuses, corrupt school officials, and the presence of a state conservator for years.
Also last year, TEA appointed monitors to oversee Austin ISD’s special education program.
TEA’s website contains more information about the La Joya ISD board of managers.