SBCISD board president accused of intimidation for email warning

SAN BENITO — Questions surround school board President Michael Vargas’ emailed warning to board members and district employees.

Last week, a district official emailed the message to the news media and district employees, apparently expressing concern an unnamed board member might have “leaked” information from a board’s closed-door meeting to a local newspaper.

But the message contains inaccurate information about the Texas Open Meetings Act, according to an official at the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas in Austin.

Meanwhile, school board member Angel Mendez believes the message was sent to “intimidate” board members and employees.

The district apparently sent the message following a local newspaper article in which school board member Mary Lou Garcia commented on Superintendent Nate Carman’s decision to fire longtime after-school director Jack Garcia, her nephew, for unauthorized use of his district credit card to buy $17,000 worth of airline tickets to fly the chess team to a Houston state championship tournament. Later, Carman ordered Garcia to cancel the nonrefundable reservations.

Mary Lou Garcia declined comment on the district’s message.

Last Tuesday, district spokeswoman Isabel Gonzalez emailed the message attributed to Vargas to the Valley Morning Star, the San Benito News and district employees.

“The San Benito CISD board of trustees recently learned that confidential information provided uniformly to all trustees through appropriate means was leaked to certain media outlets and members of the community,” a message described as a press release stated.

“The nature and content of the information was characteristic of items often discussed during executive session at properly called school board meetings, to which only members of the San Benito CISD board of trustees and key administrative personnel should have knowledge of.”

The press release says, “the majority of the San Benito CISD Board of Trustees would like to assure the community that every measure will be taken to preserve and protect any and all information that is properly discussed behind closed doors in executive session.”

The message makes reference to Texas Local Government Code Section 551 overseeing government open meetings, saying board members could face criminal penalties for disclosing the nature of closed-meeting discussions.

“Moreover, each school board member should keep in mind that it is a criminal violation punishable by law to divulge information that a board member has access to by virtue of the board members office to aid anyone, including family or friends, with pecuniary interests,” the press release states.

“At this time, the San Benito CISD board of trustees is prepared to use any of the legal tools available to enforce these confidentiality policies and ensure that information that is discussed in accordance to the provisions of the Texas Open Meetings Act remains confidential.”

The press release says, “the San Benito CISD board of trustees will safeguard that no board member misuses their position and divulges private information to give anyone, including family or friends, unfair advantages with respect to pending matters before the school board.”

At the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, Executive Director Kelley Shannon said the message contains inaccurate information about the Open Meetings Act.

“Nothing in the law prohibits somebody from exercising their freedom of speech, their First Amendment right, regarding what happened in a meeting — open or closed,” Shannon said in a telephone interview. “If a school district is telling people that, they may well be intimidating people into silence.”

Meanwhile, Mendez accused Vargas, who also serves as the public affairs liaison at the Pharr Economic Development Corporation, of abusing his power as the board’s president.

“I believe it’s an abuse of power to play politics,” Mendez said. “From my perspective, it’s a ploy of intimidation.”

But Vargas stood behind his statements.

“As public officials, school board trustees have an obligation to safeguard information that is received and/or discussed in a closed-session meeting pursuant to the Texas Open Meetings Act and the Texas Public Information Act,” the district stated in a comment attributed to Vargas. “Essentially, a trustee is responsible for complying with the requirements of both state statutes.”

“It is not in the best interest of the district for trustees to disseminate information that is considered confidential under the Texas Public Information Act — although not all disclosures may be prohibited by law. However, a trustee’s unauthorized disclosure of information considered confidential under the Public Information Act, whether obtained in a closed session or not, could be a prosecutable offense.”