Castroville watch group flies over Medina Valley ISD

CASTROVILLE — One night in mid-September, 50 people gathered in folding chairs in a gymnasium to view an impromptu PowerPoint presentation — audit reports for the Medina Valley Independent School District from years ago .

The meeting at the St. Louis Braden Keller Community Center drew longtime Castroville residents who wanted to make sure their property taxes weren’t unnecessarily high. They were responding to leaders of the new MVISD Taxpayers for Transparency who are skeptical of the school district‘s finances and operations.

READ MORE: Medina Valley ISD admin compiled list of complaints – then hit “send”

Its members have assigned themselves a watchdog role, speaking at school board meetings and filing dozens of public information requests in hopes of documenting their suspicions.

They complicated a new superintendent’s efforts to quell the uproar that began a year ago with harsh criticism from the district’s athletic director, who in turn exposed the differences between longtime residents and relatively commuters. new.

The new group is primarily concerned with money, not cultural clashes, although the two often overlap when people argue over the direction of the school district.

“We know a lot of bad things are happening, but we just don’t have the evidence to prove it,” said Hank Seay, one of its executives. “They won’t give it to us. They can not. If they do, they will go to jail.

The group still meets most Wednesday evenings, although attendance has dropped significantly.

Seay’s partner in skepticism is Terry Beck. Their allies in Taxpayers for Transparency include former school district employees and a current school board member.

Seay and Beck were on the Castroville City Council during an even more tumultuous time in Castroville that began in 2006, marked by a grand jury investigation into the city’s finances that, to their dismay, yielded no results. indictment in 2008.

In 2007, the Texas Ethics Commission found that Seay violated state law by failing to disclose campaign contributions during an unsuccessful run for mayor of Castroville. In a recent interview, Seay said he was played by people he didn’t know who handed him $100 bills at a town hall event. He said he wrote down their names and addresses, which later turned out to be false.

Some of the Taxpayers’ Transparency Group’s concerns go back years, but some align with more recent issues compiled in an email last March and sent to administrators and the then-District Superintendent by his director. facilities at the time, Tommy Ellison, who accused other leaders. to cut ethical corners on sourcing decisions, among other issues.

Public accusations thrown at school board meetings and campaigning for a board election in May have included conflicts of interest between trustees who work in construction or real estate, misuse of bond money and the dismissal of Ellison and his deputy Paul Holzhaus. The group exalts the two men as guardians of the district’s finances.

“You will be shocked at how much money we spend. It’s wasted,” Seay said.

The group struggled to get public information requests back and paid hundreds of dollars to the district for research and copying costs in the interim.

This summer, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General investigated how the district spent its pandemic relief funds, but found no violations.

Federal agents said they received numerous complaints, but all they were concerned about was how the district was spending its federal dollars, according to one of the first briefings from new MVISD Superintendent Scott Caloss when he took his duties in July.

“All requested documents have been provided, and we have been notified that MVISD is in full compliance and the review has been closed,” Caloss wrote in an email to parents and staff. The federal agency confirmed it.

“We have concluded that the allegations we have reviewed regarding the misuse of federal funds cannot be substantiated,” wrote a spokeswoman for the department, Catherine Grant.

Caloss, who has been working for less than six months, seems relatively indifferent to the group.

“I have no idea what their plans are, to be honest, because they haven’t had a conversation with the school district. I don’t know what the purpose of that is,” Caloss said in an interview several weeks ago.

“They are raising concerns but there is no documentation, no evidence,” Caloss said. “If they could get me anything specific, I’d love that and be happy to look into it. I didn’t get anything specific in regards to anything, ‘Here’s what’s going on, here’s what’s wrong.’

The idea of ​​a permanent critical opposition hovering over the school district is “for me a sign of the times,” he added. “You see this happening much more often now than 10 to 15 years ago.

“There are people who are unhappy for whatever reason, with society, with different organizations, whatever it is, they’re just unhappy, they’re not happy. I can’t really explain it,” Caloss said. “I’ve seen it for the past two years.”

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While the group’s regular meetings draw fewer than half a dozen people, it has a Facebook page and plans to establish itself as a 501-c3 nonprofit, which can then work to raise funds to help the school district.

Like many school districts, MVISD already has a 501-c3 organization called the Medina Valley Education Foundation, which functions as a fundraising arm of the district, primarily for tuition scholarships for seniors.

Roxanne Forrest, president of the foundation, started a golf tournament to help raise funds in 2021. When the foundation had extra money, it gave stipends to teachers or campuses.

Forrest sees no problem with another group raising more money for the teachers.

“We have a growing district and we can’t support everyone,” Forrest said.

Caloss pointed out that Medina Valley ISD earned an A rating for 2022 by the TEA and is one of the top performing school districts for its size in Region 20.

“We wouldn’t be performing at this level if there weren’t a lot of great things happening here,” said district spokeswoman Selena Viera.

Caloss and Viera said anyone in the community can bring their concerns directly to the district so they can do their best to address them.

Just last week, Caloss sent a letter home proposing another bond election because the district is growing so rapidly and will soon need new schools to accommodate the growth.

The letter was posted on the Facebook group MVISD Taxpayers for Transparency.

“They will never sell bonds, they can’t even say how they spent the last $107 million,” Seay wrote in a comment to the post. “This school is run by a bunch of clowns, pretending to know what they’re doing and pretending to be upfront and honest. They will go bankrupt in a year.

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