After nearly two weeks of protests and outrage from teachers of the Robstown Independent School District, trustees used the excuse of impending Hurrincane Ike to unanimously approve releasing more than 600 paychecks to employees, though the district may face punishment from the state for doing so.
Nearly 100 faculty and community members filled the district's boardroom for the Sept. 9 meeting, with some attendees having to crowd around the entrance to the room.
The meeting, which was called by trustee Roberto Tapia, came on the heels of a protest Sept. 4 after the district's faculty learned they would not be receiving their paychecks until the school board approved its 2008-09 budget. The board had failed to do so at an Aug. 30 meeting, after Superintendent Roberto Garcia presented a proposal to do away with 48 non-professional positions.
During the public speaking portion of the board meeting Sept. 9, school faculty and community members pleaded with trustees to approve the pay for the district's employees.
"I usually consider myself soft-spoken," Belinda Alaniz, a 12-year RISD employee, said. "But with all the turmoil going on lately, it's hard for me to sit back. We need to resolve this and pull together as one community."
But throughout the entire three-hour meeting, divisiveness was evident as school board president Rosendo Espinoza had difficulty keeping the meeting under control. Audience members repeatedly and loudly interjected during discussions between the trustees and school administration.
"I apologized to the board for our teachers' disregard for professionalism during the board meeting," Garcia said Thursday.
Tapia, who said he has never hidden his dislike for the superintendent, also took the meeting as an opportunity to draw cheers from the audience by arguing with Garcia in regular session during discussion on the faculty's pay.
Garcia presented the board with a letter sent from school attorney John Bell that said the district could face legal ramifications from the Texas Education Agency if it approved the disbursement of public funds without an adopted budget.
"While there is no question that payroll expenses would be considered necessary, it would be very hard to convince a court that payroll expenses are 'unforeseen' since you obviously know that you have employees long before payroll is due," Bell wrote.
The superintendent said the TEA and Bell have both said the district could be found in violation of state law if it approved releasing the district's paychecks without an adopted budget.
Garcia then recommended that the district follow state law and not approve the release of the employees' paychecks, to avoid legal ramifications. He also made a motion that if the board approved the pay without a budget, that trustees would do so with full knowledge of the potential consequences.
"I'm willing to go to jail with you to issue these checks," Tapia said as members of the audience broke into laughter and applause while other board members shook their heads in disapproval.
The discussion then took an unusual turn as Tapia, who had been seeking to have the checks issued on Sept. 15 as regularly scheduled, began to use Hurricane Ike as a reason to issue them earlier. At the time of the Sept. 9 meeting, the storm had been projected to make landfall later that week close to Corpus Christi.
Tapia then cited Bell's own letter as support for his proposal, since faculty would want to evacuate and couldn't do it without pay.
"Unforeseen emergencies typically relate to storms or other casualty losses that cannot be budgeted ahead of time," Bell wrote.
Espinoza, however, expressed his doubt on Tapia's proposal, because of the language the attorney used.
"It cannot be considered a catastrophe until it actually happens," the board president said, while members of the audience booed.
Garcia then tried to repeat Bell's recommendation, but Tapia interrupted him before he could finish.
"I personally think that God is with us, because you asked for a catastrophe and here it comes," Tapia said to Garcia, while members of the board again shook their heads in disapproval of Tapia's comments.
After a few more minutes of discussion, Garcia then rescinded his recommendation to follow state law and instead recommended the board approve pay for the faculty "as soon as possible due to the impending catastrophe in the (Gulf of Mexico)."
The motion passed 7-0, after which the audience broke into applause and immediately began filing out of the room while the board took a brief recess.
Garcia said after the meeting that while he was unhappy at the teachers' behavior and demeanor during the regular session, he was glad the situation was resolved.
"I'm happy for the teachers," Garcia said. "It's really not their fault that they're in the situation they're in."
Madaline Caraway, president of the Texas State Teachers Association-Robstown Faculty Association, said faculty members who live paycheck to paycheck had been concerned about not getting paid.
"I think (trustees) did the right thing," Caraway said. "The human side of this is people were concerned. Thank God for Ike, because I feel that drove us to getting paid."
The RFA president said the situation was on the verge of getting out of hand and may have needed to be resolved in court.
"We're really appreciative that it didn't get to that point," Caraway said.
However, Garcia said the possibility is still there that the TEA might still look into punishing the school district for its action Tuesday, but added he is hopeful it won't come to that.
"I don't think we're absolved from possibilities of TEA legal action," the superintendent said. "Realistically, though, I think we complied because of the unforeseen situation in the gulf."