Former Monte Alto ISD employee sues district, trustees over firing

A former employee is challenging his dismissal from the Monte Alto Independent School District, alleging he was wrongfully terminated by the district for “perceived political association” with former board members.

Pete Riojas, the former executive director of business administration, filed a petition through his attorney, John Shergold, against Monte Alto ISD and four current board members. Riojas filed this petition in U.S. District Court in McAllen on Aug. 23.

The four defendants are board President Connie Villanueva, Vice President Raul Valdez, Secretary Armando Lopez and Trustee Brenda Cavazos. Valdez, Cavazos and Lopez campaigned under the slogan “Expect more, Expect better” along with support from Villanueva, according to the petition. They formed the new majority on the school board following the 2018 election, the suit read.

He alleges that the new majority went on a “campaign retaliating” against employees who did not support them, or they had perceived of not supporting their faction.

Prior to his termination, the board majority met and proposed his termination without the plaintiff’s knowledge or notice on Feb. 26, according to the petition. On March 4, correspondence signed by Villanueva had “false and pretextual reasons” for termination, which the plaintiff has denied. The letter also informed Riojas of a hearing for March 7 to present his case and face the board members.

These four trustees voted to terminate Riojas from the district on March 7, according to the petition.

He alleges the reasoning behind the termination was “pretextual,” and the “true reason” for the action was the majority’s belief and perception of “political association” with “rival former board members political campaign and his involvement during the 2018 school board elections.”

The district’s former board members hired Riojas, who began work about Aug. 1, 2017, as the business manager in the human resources department with a one-year contract. The board members voted to extend his contract as the district’s executive director of business administration for the 2018-19 school year on May 23, 2018.

The plaintiff said he did not have any “adverse” employment action due to performance or other reasons, according to the complaint.

The defendants were motivated by “mistaken belief that Plaintiff had supported her opposing candidate and former board members during the 2018 school board elections,” according to the complaint.

Riojas requests exemplary damages in addition to compensatory damages against the defendants, an amount of $3 million, according to the original complaint. The plaintiff alleges he is also entitled to exemplary damages and compensatory damages of $1 million from each individual defendant, to deter future acts in this nature, which the original complaint further stated.

Alleged violations of the plaintiff’s First Amendment and 14th Amendment rights were also part of Riojas’ argument. The four trustees acted outside their “proper course and scope” of duties as board members with a termination based on politically motivations, he alleged.

School district attorney Benjamin Castillo of O’Hanlon, Demerath and Castillo, a law firm based in Austin with offices in Pharr and San Antonio, declined to provide comment on the original complaint, as it is pending litigation, he said.

Shergold, the plaintiff’s attorney, also declined to speak as of press time, citing similar reasons as pending litigation and referred to the document for clarification.

jhoang@themonitor.com