Saturday, November 24, 2007

State Asked to Help Fight Corruption, Political Ineptness, in Delta Region

Is there anyone in state government who can do anything about dozens of school janitors, cafeteria workers, and security guards having two weeks paid leave during early voting to go trawl for votes for school board members?

If so, the two major political groups in the Rio Grande Valley’s Delta region would like to hear from you. They would like a state investigation into the way Edcouch-Elsa ISD is run, as well as other local governmental entities in one of the most impoverished areas of the country.

Leaders of the Better Edcouch-Elsa Club and the Delta Area Civic Organization announced last week that they had reached an “historic agreement’ to work together to stamp out public corruption in their community. They called the accord historic because for many years they were at each other’s throats.

“How can the school employees get out for a whole two weeks to be taking votes? Either they need them in school, or they don’t need them. Period. They are getting paid from school funds,” said Jesus Flores, a leader of the BEE Club.

Flores said he had been involved in local politics and he has never seen the level of public corruption going on today.

“When they have 100 cars taking the absentee vote, where did they get all that money for a position that does not pay?” Flores asked. “I say, let the people go vote, not go pick them up. We hear they even pay up to $20 per vote.”

Eloy Garza, a leader with the DACO Club, said Flores was speaking the truth.

“The majority on the school board hire them (school employees), and then, when the early voting starts, they go out like an army of workers and they pick up 70 percent of the early vote prior to election day,” Garza complained.

“All these people know that once the political machine wins then they are set in a job for the next year; sometimes, being paid more than they should be paid. We are talking about some non-professionals who get paid as much as a professional.”

A teacher at Edcouch-Elsa who asked not to be named for fear of retribution said Garza and Flores were right to speak out. “All the cafeteria workers and janitors go missing at election time. They get off two or three weeks. And they are just out there bringing in the votes. That’s all they do.”

The state has looked into the goings on at EEISD. In August 2006, the Legislative Budget Board did a school performance review. It commended the school district for eight of its practices and found 80 areas where there was room for improvement.

The LBB said the school board “overreaches its responsibilities by interfering in daily operations of the district.” It also said the school district was overstaffed by 77 positions. EEISD had an enrollment of 5,472 students in 2005-06, and a payroll of 884 employees.

The Texas Education Agency found EEISD to be “academically acceptable” in 2004-05, though its TAKS passing rate of 46 percent, was much lower than the 62 percent statewide average.

Flores said there was no way the BEE and DACO clubs could unite politically and oust the majority running the school board through the election process.

“We have been trying to fight it but it has been so hard. They’ve got control of the school; they’ve got control of the city; they’ve got control of the housing authority,” Flores said.

“They are not doing what’s good for the community; they are doing what is good for them. Hiring people here, hiring people there, they don’t care about what happens with taxpayers’ money, they don’t care what happens to the schoolchildren. It’s embarrassing.”

Garza agreed. “We have tried. They are well-funded and therefore they are very strong politically,” he said.

Exacerbating the problem, Flores and Garza say, is the fact that countywide elected officials tap into the huge political machine in the Delta for votes. As a result, few political leaders in Hidalgo County are willing to say anything.

“We’ve been to the District Attorney. We’ve been to the sheriff. It seems like nobody has been able to help us in any way,” Flores said.

Many Edcouch and Elsa citizens hoped things would improve when then-EEISD school board president Aaron Gonzalez was arrested in February 2006 and convicted in federal court of extortion in June 2006. Gonzalez admitted taking cash and trips in return for votes to help certain contractors get school district contracts.

Unfortunately, Flores and Garza said, things did not improve, and supporters of Gonzalez in the BEE Club broke away to set up a splinter group, known today as the Super BEE Club. “We voted to get rid him, but a lot of people followed him,” Flores said.

Fearing that political disunity might foster other problems for the district, leaders of the BEE and DACO clubs asked state Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, if he could help them find a replacement board member for Gonzalez.

The consensus candidate was Saul Garcia, Peña’s legislative director, who was sworn into office in March 2006. That has not worked out well, according to the anonymous teacher, because Garcia has yet to offer himself up for election.

“You have a school board member, Mr. Garcia, who was appointed two years ago and by law, under the Election Code, as soon as there is a new election, he’s supposed to be replaced,” the teacher said. “We have gone through three elections and he has not been replaced. There’s a lot of abuse going on over there.”

Flores and Garza went into great detail about the allegations of corruption in an interview with the Guardian while attending Peña’s campaign kickoff event at Edinburg’s Echo Hotel last Thursday. They had nothing but praise for Peña and said they hoped he could help them battle inept leadership on the school board.

“We think Representative Peña can talk to people at TEA. The legislature has authority over the TEA. He can talk to the right people,” Garza said.

“All we are asking is, please come in and investigate. We have our own ideas on what is going on but we want the state to investigate for them selves. Certainly, there has been enough information given to them. It’s just a matter of them doing what they need to do.”

A boisterous crowd of supporters went silent at Peña’s campaign kickoff when the three-term House member said he would fight corruption in the Delta. Peña said the BEE and DACO club leaders had asked him to speak out.

“I make this a pledge: that next session I’m going to work really hard so that we provide honest and decent government for all our kids. No longer will we have a tax on the poor; no longer will this hidden tax come and affect us. We will work together to better our community and I hope you stand with me in that effort,” Peña said. The crowd applauded.

Interviewed afterwards, Peña said the first thing anyone could do is recognize there is a problem and the second is to speak out. On the legislative front, he said the committee he chairs, Criminal Jurisprudence, could hold a hearing on the issue.

“Our community has taken remarkable strides towards the future,” Peña said. “The economic advances, growth and prosperity of the borderlands is unparalleled in Texas history. With such growth come greater expectations. It is essential that illegal corruption be rooted out from our public discourse. True success will not come unless our moral growth matches our economic growth.”

Peña said he agreed with Flores and Garza that businesses will not locate in the Delta if the political leadership is lacking.

“Business and the jobs they bring demand a stable political environment,” Peña said. ‘They and the wonderful people of our community should not be carrying the added tax that comes from public corruption. As charged by the leaders of this community it is my intention to use every resource at my disposal to bring good and honest government to the people I serve.”

Garza said the ineptness of the political leadership is there for all to see. He pointed to the fact that the City of Elsa is around $3 million in debt and had to let go of 90 percent of its employees because it could not meet payroll.

The schoolteacher who wished to remain nameless, Garza, Flores, and Peña all agreed that there were plenty of good people in the Delta.

“The problem is restricted to a select few,” the teacher said. “You see people trying. The people who can go vote don’t go vote. And the people who do vote think of it as a way of life. There are a lot of really good people there. It’s just accepted as a way of life. We are going to support certain people. There’s corruption, everybody knows about it.”

The teacher pointed to an opportunity EEISD had last year to be a part of the Gates Foundation High School Redesign Program. “Because it went against the football program they killed it. It’s about football first and I don’t think education runs even second. It had potential to really help the students,” the teacher lamented.


© Copyright of the Vox Veritas Corporation dba Rio Grande Guardian. Article by Steve Taylor.

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