Decision pending on ECISD TRO as both sides argue cases in lengthy court hearing

Attorney for Edinburg CISD, Sonny Palacios listens as attorney Javier Villalobos talks with County Court-at-Law No.1 Judge Rodolfo Gonzalez during the TRO hearing on Thursday, April 4, 2019 in Edinburg. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

BY NAXIELY LOPEZ-PUENTE AND JOHN HOANG | STAFF WRITERS

EDINBURG — Hidalgo County Court-at-Law Judge Rodolfo “Rudy” Gonzalez will likely decide Friday whether the school district here misused taxpayer funds to promote the passage of a $220 million bond after spending nearly five hours Thursday listening to both sides argue their cases.

Attorneys, and brothers, Javier Villalobos and Jesse Villalobos represented Jane Cross and Jerry Rivera in their temporary injunction petition against the Edinburg Consolidated Independent School District and its superintendent, René Gutiérrez. Kevin O’Hanlon and Juan “Sonny” Palacios defended the school district.

The Villalobos brothers argued the district advocated for the bond’s passage by printing a brochure that included “persuasive” and “enticing” words, accused administration of pressuring teachers to attend mandatory meetings about the bond, claimed two board members directed Gutiérrez to hire a marketing firm to “electioneer” in favor of the measure, and said the district ultimately used taxpayer money to advocate for it.

O’Hanlon and Palacios argued the district kept a close eye on the language of the material, which O’Hanlon said he vetted on several occasions before the district printed it, and insisted the material was merely an informational pamphlet to help educate the populace.

The petition was not filed to stop the bond election in May, but to show that the district was “putting a thumb on the scale,” the Villalobos brothers said.

“This whole issue is just about appropriation of funds,” school board member Mike Farias said while on the witness stand. “Yes, there are needs in the district, and yes I do want to support a bond. But I just want to make sure the funds are appropriated correctly.”

School district attorneys, however, argued the lawsuit was a political move to taint the election.

“We believe that the purpose of this hearing was just to smear the bond,” Palacios said after the hearing. “Like they said themselves, they’re not trying to stop the bond passage, they’re not trying to stop the contracts, they’re not trying to stop the presentations, they’re not trying to stop anything.”

The hearing drew a large crowd early on that included a number of school board members, district employees and supporters for each side, including former Edinburg mayoral candidate and district employee Gina Alamia, ECISD Police Chief Ricardo Perez Jr. and district spokesman Roy Cantu.

Three board members took the stand — Farias, Carmen Gonzalez and Oscar Salinas — as did Gutiérrez and Cross, but not before the attorneys argued whether the court had jurisdiction over the case.

Palacios and O’Hanlon argued the Texas Legislature gave authority to the Texas Ethics Commission to rule on possible ethics violations to the election code, but the judge disagreed and heard the arguments.

Pamphlets

Farias said he took issue with the brochure’s language, which included phrases such as “investing wisely” and “trust and transparency.”

He also argued it contained information that was not factual in reference to enrollment figures and trends and said it amounted to providing “selective facts” that were meant to “entice” the public to vote in favor of the measure.

ECISD attorneys argued those words did not meet the legal definition of advocacy.

“Enticing words are not enough, the question is (have they) expressed advocacy,” Palacios said.

At one point, Gonzalez appeared to agree with the district.

“I don’t see anything that’s glaring,” the judge said about the pamphlet. “‘If approved’ provides the only indication toward voting, but information is provided afterward.

“It’s not saying do it or don’t. It says “if.” That to me would be an indication, we’re gonna let it, leave it to the community, and let the voters decide,” Gonzalez said.

ABC group

Farias also testified that the superintendent told him he was given a directive by two board members — Salinas and board president Robert Peña — to hire Absolute Business Consulting Group and insinuated they ordered Gutiérrez to forge a contract with the company that would cost the district less than $50,000 because that would allow Gutiérrez to sign off on it without board approval.

Gutiérrez testified Salinas introduced him to the company — which is run by well-known political consultants Karina Cardoza and Mike Robledo — but said he was not threatened or directed to do so.

He also went on to say that other board members, including Farias, have introduced him to vendors, calling it a commonplace practice.

The $45,000, five-month contract was forged to help disseminate information about the bond and to help the district recruit students before classes begin in August, Gutiérrez said.

Marketing the district to parents and students is important as charter schools compete for enrollment, which is an issue many other districts face in the area, school district attorneys argued.

“I don’t know when it got to be so important to have marketing as such a tool for any kind of ISD,” plaintiff Jane Cross said during her time at the stand. “I just don’t want to have public funds used to promote any kind of bond issue.”

The contract might have included the bond, but it was not the focal point of the hiring, Gutiérrez testified.

Pressure

Gutiérrez testified he was not aware of any mandatory meetings held solely in reference to the bond, and indicated the principals at the schools call the meetings and decide what items will be up for discussion. As superintendent, he does not have complete control of every school or principal, he said.

“They make their own agendas,” Gutiérrez testified, adding he does not attend those meetings. “I don’t want to be accused of intimidation.”

The Villalobos brothers tried to introduce emails about mandatory meetings during school hours, but Palacios and O’Hanlon successfully objected to it because they weren’t sent by the superintendent and they did not specify the meetings were meant to discuss the bond.

The Villalobos brothers provided “not one scintilla of evidence that any teacher has been threatened or (harassed),” Palacios said. “Not one witness has come forward.”

The plaintiff’s attorneys argued district employees were scared to come forward and testify.

“How many teachers do you think are going to come here and tell (them) in public that their superintendent, or board member pressured them to go out there,” Jesse Villalobos said after the hearing. “Everybody has bills to pay and a job to keep. People don’t want to lose their job….and that’s what it comes down to.”

Friday or Monday

Gonzalez asked both parties to submit proposed orders for him to evaluate and consider by noontime Friday. If he receives them by that time, he’ll have a ruling by Friday afternoon. If not, both side will have to wait until Monday for a conclusion to the case.