The Rio Grande City school district board of trustees agreed to settle a wrongful termination lawsuit filed by former police chief Hernan Garza III, which would allow him to be reinstated to the role and grant him $400,000.
The decision was approved by trustees Leticia Lopez, Basilio “Bacho” Villarreal and Noe Castillo during a school board meeting Tuesday. Board President Eduardo “Eddie” Ramirez abstained because he was a defendant in the lawsuit.
Trustees Daria “Dr. B” Babineaux, Daniel Garcia, and Eleazar Velasquez Jr. did not attend the meeting.
Garza filed the lawsuit against the school district in November 2016 after he was terminated in February of that year. His alleged failure to act on multiple incidents of improper student-teacher relationships was cited by the then-board members as the reason behind his firing.
The two teachers involved in the incidents in question pleaded guilty to the charges and in the wake of those incidents, then-Superintendent Joel Trigo was stripped of administrative certificates.
During an investigation by the Texas Education Agency, Trigo admitted he did not timely notify the State Board of Education Certification of the incidents regarding the two teachers but said it was due to lack of knowledge on the notification requirements.
In his lawsuit, Garza denied that he failed to investigate the incidents and alleged that he was fired because of his affiliation to political opponents of the board members who were in the majority at the time.
The two incidents, however, were brought up during Garza’s deposition, a copy of which was obtained by The Monitor. Attorneys for the district questioned Garza on the timeliness of reporting the case to the district attorney’s office and the police department’s training practices.
The lawsuit extended past the new school board elections in November 2018, which shifted the majority back in favor of Garza’s acquaintances.
The board members who are currently in the minority — Babineaux, Garcia and Velasquez — issued a statement addressing their absence from Tuesday’s meeting.
“The agenda for today’s meeting was infested with unethical agenda items for discussion and illegalities,” the statement read. “The agenda items for discussion this evening not only jeopardize the district, but also us as individuals.”
They further stated they submitted a letter to state agencies with a complaint about the agenda item.
Babineaux had written to the school district’s attorney, Ruben R. Peña, with concerns over reinstating Garza as police chief. The letter was also sent to the Texas Education Agency, the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, and the Texas Attorney General’s Office.
“I have knowledge of the allegations against Mr. Garza and I am extremely concerned for the well-being and protection of our students,” Babineaux wrote in the letter dated Feb. 25. “As you know, I am a local physician and I have seen the devastating effects of abuse to children. I do not believe that Mr. Garza should be employed by our school district or by any school district.”
She said she believed it inappropriate for trustees Lopez and Castillo to vote on any action, arguing that they had a fiduciary relationship with Garza.
Garza sits on the Rio Grande City commission, essentially serving as a supervisor for Castillo, the Rio Grande City police chief, and Lopez’s husband, Municipal Judge Leonel Lopez.
In a memo responding to Babineaux on Feb. 26; however, Peña stated that no fiduciary relationship existed between Garza and either board member.
“Case law in Texas is that employer and employee relationships do not create a fiduciary relationship,” Peña said Wednesday, noting there was an exception if the employee has confidential information and sells it or gives it to someone else. “But in the normal scope of things, that does not arise.”
Peña explained his recommendation to the board to settle the case arose from the cost of it.
He explained that nearly $160,000 had already been spent on the case and said a loss at trial would likely cost them more than the $400,000 settlement.
Babineaux pushed back on that, stating that the previous lead attorney on the case, Steven Weller, had advised the board to wait for summary judgement, believing they had a strong case.
She added that she and the other board members who chose not to attend the meeting, were surprised to see the item on the agenda because they weren’t aware the case was in settlement negotiations.
In recommending settlement, Peña said another factor was that the expenses on the case would not be covered by the school district’s insurance carrier and would have to be paid out of their fund balance.
At the time the lawsuit was filed, the school district was insured with the Texas Association of Public Schools Property and Liability Fund, or TAPS.
The insurer, however, declared bankruptcy in October 2017, leaving the school district without coverage.
“What the board members that were present had to look at was maybe we did have good cause to terminate this individual, but we’re now in a position where the district has significant exposure to liability,” Peña said.
The district has since obtained a new insurer, but because this lawsuit was filed before the new insurer was contracted, it won’t cover expenses for this case.
Garza said he was grateful to the school board for “exonerating” him and to his friends and family for supporting him.
He pointed out that the last time he was up for re-election for the city commission in May 2018, he won with 70 percent of the vote.
“That just proves that the people of Rio Grande City know who I am,” he said, dismissing any concerns that students’ safety would be in question with him as chief.
“The people know who I am,” he said.