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Texas School District Closes Amid Water Dispute

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TK

    Schools are closed in a one-stoplight South Texas town after the city shut off their water amid a dispute over the bill.

    The city of La Villa shut off water and sewer service to the La Villa Independent School District in December, shortly after students started their holiday break. The city had increased a water surcharge and the school district has refused to pay the higher rate.

    The district's approximately 625 students were supposed to return to classes Monday, but instead found this message on the school district's website: "All La Villa I.S.D. schools will be closed until further notice."

    Students raising pigs at the district farm just behind the baseball field had to find new homes for their projects. The boys and girls basketball teams have had their home games converted to away games until the dispute is resolved. They beg court time for practices from other area districts. Seniors fret -- perhaps prematurely -- over whether they might be forced to finish out their final year in another district.

    "It's a really sad situation knowing they can't come to terms," said Angie Reyna, who on Monday coaxed her daughter Amanda, a senior in La Villa, into coming to work at a relative's drive-thru convenience store in Elsa on Monday.

    Maxine Elizondo had three grandsons to look after Monday instead of just the youngest. Their parents both work, so Elizondo was thankful she's retired and can help out.

    "Some parents may not be as fortunate," Elizondo said, while the oldest boy, a 5th grader, rode his bike in lazy circles in the street. She said the quibbling adults are acting like children.

    "I think it's sad because to me I don't think they're thinking about the children," Elizondo said.

    The dispute has been festering for more than a year in the town of about 2,000, 25 miles east of McAllen. In December 2011, the city approved adding a surcharge for water and sewer service to the school district on top of the usage rate. It was initially set at $10 per person -- students, staff -- but the district fought it down to $6 and the two sides inked an agreement in November 2012. But the city commission turned around the following month and raised the surcharge to $14.

    The school district has continued paying at the $6 surcharge rate, but the city says it's more than $58,000 in arrears.

    "We got here because some adults are irresponsible," said school district Superintendent Narciso Garcia.

    He said the city's financial problems and decrepit water plant are well known, and that desperate commissioners are just trying to squeeze the school district to get back into the black. The school district and a private jail housing federal prisoners are the town's two main employers.

    In a letter to the Texas Education Agency in December, Mayor Hector Elizondo wrote: "This was a raise in rates that was absolutely necessary in order that the City upgrade its aging utility systems and meet quality standards set by (the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality).

    Messages left in person at City Hall on Monday for the city manager and mayor were not returned. A phone message left for the city attorney was also not returned.

    "People are not looking beyond their selfishness," Garcia said. "They are financially strapped, but that's not my problem."

    A last ditch attempt at resolving the dispute over the weekend foundered when the two sides, meeting simultaneously blocks apart from each other Saturday night, could not agree. The school district offered to pay a $7 surcharge, the city countered with $12, so the school board decided to go home.

    Both sides are scheduled to appear Wednesday in Austin before the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The school district has requested an emergency order to compel the city to turn the water back on. School officials made a similar request in December, but the TCEQ declined to act then. If the TCEQ gets the water back on, Garcia said schools could reopen Friday.

    Victoria Lopez, the senior class president at La Villa Early College High School, said Monday that she and her classmates just want to get back to school. She was supposed to start a college-level calculus class this semester. If she had to transfer to another district, she worries it could jeopardize her class rank and all the college scholarship benefits that come with it.

    Lopez managed to move her pig to her brother-in-law's farm, but worries because it's competing for food with others there instead of enjoying its private pen at the school district farm.

    "We just want them to settle it, get an agreement, because we need to get back to school," she said.

    On Monday evening she and her basketball teammates were scheduled to drive to Lyford, 16 miles away, for an hour of court time for practice. "That's all we could get."