The Rio Grande City school board held another tumultuous meeting this week which, this time, ended with three of the board members walking out of the meeting.
Following a discussion on payments to the school board attorney, Board Trustees Basilio “Bacho” Villarreal, Eduardo “Eddie” Ramirez, and Noe Castillo walked out of the meeting leaving the remaining trustees — Board President Eleazar Velasquez, Daria “Dr. B” Babineaux, and Leticia O. Lopez — without quorum.
Villarreal said on Wednesday that he left because he was fed up and frustrated.
“The president of the board wouldn’t let us speak too much,” Villarreal said. “Bottom line is we just got tired.”
Velasquez, the board president, did not return a request for comment as of press time.
Villarreal also pointed out that everything that was on their agenda for the open session portion of the meeting was addressed.
“Bottom line — we took care of all of the business we needed to take care of and we left,” he said.
Babineaux, however, noted that they weren’t able to have executive session during which, she said, they were set to discuss personnel items they really needed to address.
“There’s a reason that the agenda is set as an agenda, it’s so that all those items can be addressed and then we adjourn,” she said. “We didn’t make it through a third of the meeting.”
Regarding Villarreal’s frustration that he didn’t feel he was allowed to speak, Babineaux said she had experienced something similar in the past.
“I have been in the same situation when Eddie Ramirez was president,” Babineaux said. “There was a point when he wouldn’t even allow us to have discussion but we still didn’t walk out.”
Ramirez said that was simply not true and that he always allowed everyone an opportunity to speak on a particular agenda item.
“I set the rules,” he said. “Right now the rules are very arbitrary.”
Ramirez expressed his frustration that Babineaux and Lopez were being given an open platform to read prepared political statements.
He pointed to a statement Lopez made during the Jan. 27 meeting — before any agenda items were taken up — in which she accused Villarreal of making negative comments about her health.
Ramirez also noted that Babineaux read a statement after a vote failed, after the designated discussion segment had passed. He added that he felt ambushed when those board members would make those statements before the public which he said felt very orchestrated.
“We’re there to conduct business,” he said. “After a while you just get so frustrated with the process.
Babineaux acknowledged that she had previously walked out of a board meeting but explained it was due to a clinic emergency, referring to her duties as a pediatrician.
“I’m on call 24/7 and it was quite a different situation,” she said, adding that when she left, there were still enough members to have quorum and therefore continue the meeting.
When the three board members walked out from Tuesday’s meeting, it was just after the matter of the board attorney’s contract was raised again.
Board Attorney Rene Montalvo was hired by the school district on Oct. 14 but Villarreal questioned why the district’s agreement with him — or his monthly payments — hadn’t been brought before the board for approval.
A recording of the October meeting indicates the board approved a motion to hire Montalvo as their new legal counsel with the condition that he meet with the board president, the superintendent and the CFO to finalize their agreement.
The school district reached an agreement to pay Montalvo a flat monthly retainer of $12,500 per month.
The district’s chief financial officer, Diana Robles-Mendez, read a legal opinion from another attorney for the school district.
The attorney said the issue ultimately came down to the board’s intent during the Oct. 14 meeting.
“Looking solely at language in the motion and the discussion on this item at the board meeting, I think it is reasonable to interpret the motion as granting authority to sign a contract, especially if the trustees saw the signed contract and did not raise an issue upon being shown the signed contract,” the attorney wrote in the letter to Robles-Mendez.
However, that attorney stressed that though he was offering an opinion, his opinion did not speak for the board or bind them to any particular decision.
Villarreal stressed that a board member and the superintendent didn’t have the right to enter into a contract and said that board policy stated that payments above $5,000 had to be approved by the board.
“Only the board can spend money,” he said. “Either you have a contract or you if you don’t, you bring it to the board and say ‘Yeah, we approve this bill.’”
Babineaux, though, argued the issue with Montalvo’s salary was a settled matter.
“Basically by the motion given, he felt that it was appropriate that the actions taken were in line with the motion,” Babineaux said of the attorney who wrote the opinion. “Basically saying he felt comfortable stating that the motion did state that the CFO, the superintendent and the president would be in control of determining the contract and his salary.”
She said that local policy was that once a contract was confirmed, they just pay the agreed upon fee without further board action.
“Once we agree that that’s the fee that we pay, then we just pay that fee,” Babineaux said.