The Fabens Independent School District is facing a state review after the district’s former superintendent accused board members of failing to follow federal and state regulations and creating a hostile work environment for administrators.
The Fabens ISD school board received an email, which was obtained by El Paso Matters, from the Texas Education Agency on Aug. 10, informing them that the state agency would conduct a compliance review in response to a complaint submitted by former Superintendent Veronica Vijil.
Vijil resigned as superintendent on June 21 after the board voted not to extend her contract in February. The following day, the board voted to appoint Martin Torres, the district’s former assistant superintendent of business and operations, as interim superintendent.
The complaint filed with the TEA by Vijil on June 30 included claims that some board members broke the Texas Open Meetings Act and on one occasion, attempted to pressure a school principal to disclose private information on a student.
Vijil told El Paso Matters during an interview in August that she is concerned some of the new board members who took office earlier this year did not get appropriate training on their duties.
“I still don’t believe that they are adhering to their roles and responsibilities as board members,” Vijil said.
Torres declined a request for comment.
“We anticipate a successful conclusion to this matter once TEA sees our response,” Fabens ISD spokesperson Sofia Maciel said in an email response to El Paso Matters.
The rural school district sits about 30 miles east of Downtown El Paso and two miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border. It had just under 2,000 students during the 2022-23 school year.
A TEA compliance review is meant to ensure that school districts remain in line with statutory and program requirements, and could trigger a special investigation or corrective action, according to the agency’s website. TEA did not answer any of the questions sent by El Paso Matters.
As part of the state review, school districts can submit a written response that will be reviewed by the agency’s Compliance Review Unit. According to the TEA website, it is not uncommon for these reviews to take up to a year to complete.
The Fabens school board voted on Aug. 14 to have their legal team send a response to the TEA.
In the end, Vijil said she hopes the review will lead to additional training for board members.
According to the complaint, board Vice President Luis “Charlie” Estrada contacted Fabens Middle School Assistant Principal Justin Kleist asking why a student who had gotten into an altercation with his son had not received the consequences he wanted. Estrada asked Kleist for notes on the student’s admission, review and dismissal meeting — also known as an ARD — which are conducted to create individualized education plans for students with disabilities and can be used to address behavioral issues.
These notes and the outcomes of ARD meetings are protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
“I am a member of the board of trustees just let me know who you are dealing with,” Estrada allegedly told Kleist.
In the complaint, Vijil said Estrada denied saying this but said he called Kleist the following day to apologize for raising his voice.
Estrada did not respond to emails requesting comment.
The complaint also stated Vijil believed board members broke the Texas Open Meetings Act by discussing agenda items before meetings. The act requires governmental bodies like school boards to keep all their deliberations open to the public, except during authorized closed sessions.
According to the complaint, Vijil’s secretary, Terri Rodriguez, caught four board members discussing an agenda item outside an open meeting. Vijil noted in the complaint that there had been a pattern of board members voting the same during previous meetings.
Vijil also claimed in the complaint that board members created a hostile workplace environment and had inappropriate conversations during board meetings, which were edited out of videos posted online.
In February, the board voted 4-3 not to extend Vijil’s contract following a closed session meeting on her annual evaluation.
Vijil stated she didn’t receive any feedback from the board during her evaluation on how she could improve as a superintendent and was asked by board President Sylvia Gonzales not to hire or fire anyone for the remainder of her tenure.
“I never really knew what they wanted. No goals were set, there was no communication about what to improve on,” said Vijil, who is now the deputy superintendent for the Seguin (Texas) Independent School District.
Vijil also stated she believed Torres had conversations with board members about confidential topics discussed during private cabinet meetings with her.
The complaint also stated that Torres “negotiated a pay raise for himself” by taking on the position of interim superintendent “yet he is not willing to address inequity pay for those on the professional (and) administrative scale.”
Per the complaint, Torres told Vijil the board did not have the funds to address equity pay for administrators. The complaint also states Gonzalez told Vijil that the principal of O’Donnell Intermediate, Corina Ruiz, did not deserve a raise.
“I explained that this is not a raise, but instead an equity adjustment,” Vijil stated in the complaint.
Torres allegedly also asked an employee that he supervises for a loan.
Vijil’s complaint also alleged that board member Julieta Sepulveda Ramirez’s daughter used school facilities to run a basketball program and charged money, but did not provide receipts to the district. In the complaint, Vijil stated she was directed to allow her to use the facilities with no repercussions for failing to provide receipts.
Sepulveda did not respond to emails requesting comment.
The complaint stated the board members broke state regulations by micromanaging the district and making requests directly to school administrators, rather than going through the superintendent. This includes an incident when board member Angel Ornelas asked the high school principal to allow the mariachi group to perform at a nursing home that his wife managed.
“They were going into elementary school, going into all of the teacher’s classrooms. For what purpose, I’m not really sure except to tell the superintendent how the elementary school should be run, how the bell schedule should be, or the master schedule should be set up,” Vijil told El Paso Matters. “These are operational decisions that they’re getting in the middle of.”
While school boards have the power to govern and oversee the management of the school district, according to the Texas Code of Education, it is up to the superintendent to manage its day-to-day operations.
Vijil told El Paso Matters that school administrators felt pressured to follow board members’ directions, fearing they could lose their jobs.