By HEATHER CATHLEEN COX
The San Benito Consolidated Independent School District has been slapped with a lawsuit after five long-time police officers allege that Superintendent of Schools Antonio G. Limón and SBCISD Police Chief S. R. Garcia asked said officers to perform illegal activity, including unwarranted arrests.
In addition, officers allege they have not been paid according to their tenure and have also been denied overtime pay, including promotions.
District officials named in the suit, however, were mum when asked to address the 97 allegations listed.
According to the federal lawsuit, filed July 7, SBCISD police officers John Espinoza, Omar Garza, Antonio Naranjo, Roel Olivares and Alberto Reyes claim they were improperly paid for overtime. Still, they were required to be on call 24 hours a day.
Their complaints date back to March 2012.
Among complaints detailed in the suit, officer Reyes claims he “was told to falsely arrest a male student solely because he was Honduran, and Garcia did not want him at the district anymore.”
The lawsuit further states that “Reyes reported the case immediately to the Cameron County District Attorney’s Office. Limón met with Oscar De La Fuente (Jr.), who at the time was a board member, and they put pressure on Garcia to get Reyes to make the arrest because the student was Honduran.”
When Reyes refused to arrest the student because his “peace officer license is on the line… Garcia moved him out of investigations and evidence and to the VMA campus. Garcia told him that in the future, Reyes needs to do what he is told and to ask no questions,” according to the lawsuit.
Both Limón and Garcia declined comment regarding this incident.
Also included in the report are allegations made by Garza, where he informed Attorney Star Jones—who is representing the aforementioned five officers in their case against SBCISD—about former Berta Cabaza Band Director Alfredo Hernandez (a.k.a. “Freddy Love”) soliciting minors for sexual activity. Hernandez, who had been arrested by the Harlingen Police Department in 2012, was still employed by the district at that time.
Additionally, the lawsuit says that Garza was instructed “to take a report and investigate…the same teacher soliciting female students at Miller Jordan Middle School. During his investigation, Garza made contact with the parents of one child in particular (who) informed him they wanted to file charges against this teacher. A few days later, Garza received a call from Garcia telling him he received orders from Limón to drop the investigation.”
After Garza alerted the DA’s office, Hernandez was indicted on over 100 charges of online solicitation, according to the suit.
Garcia and Limón declined comment about this allegation.
Regarding improper pay, these officers filed a formal grievance against Limón and Garcia on Dec. 20, 2012 which was heard on Jan. 22, 2013. As stated in the lawsuit, “Not long after the grievance hearing, SBCISD retaliated against Garza, Olivares and Naranjo. Garza was…demoted to a small rural school in the country which had never required a police officer before. Olivares was moved to a rural school…to serve as security.”
Naranjo was allegedly told to change his ‘clock-in’ procedures, which, according to the lawsuit, resulted in spending “$100.00 of his own money, each month, on fuel, because of this retaliatory rule Garcia created.”
In 2012, these five officers have claimed Limón cut back their hours due to an alleged “necessary budget cut.”
Comparatively, as per the lawsuit, “SBCISD Board members told (officers) that Limón was… never told to make budget cuts, especially to the police department’s police officers, and that they never met with Limón to discuss these changes.”
Consequentially, the SBCISD Board of Trustees – then represented by members who have since been voted out of office – stripped the superintendent’s powers by lessening his purchasing authority for amounts under $5,000. This required almost weekly meetings of the board in order to fulfill purchase orders. The Board also limited Limón’s firing and hiring capabilities.
Once some “officers were relocated to other schools, Limón then gave officer Norma Martinez a raise and increased her salary to $35,808.00 from $33,308.00, even though she has less experience than (officers) and does not hold the job titles as other officers, specifically Reyes and Garza,” plaintiffs state in the suit.
When asked for comment about these allegations, Limón declined, saying: “The school district does not comment on pending investigations.”
The superintendent, however, did comment with regard to specific accusations made against him in the suit. “The allegations that are made against me personally in this lawsuit have already been investigated and proven to be false,” Limón said. “It’s my understanding that some of these may have been the same allegations brought up in the investigation against me, all of which I was cleared of.”
The hearing officer, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruct Celesté Sanchez, who also serves San Benito as mayor, ruled against officers on every issue except one. “Sanchez made the finding that (officers) have ‘raised substantial questions regarding the adequacy of the compensation they have received for overtime work under the FLSA, and may have raised some substantial questions as to whether their time records have been properly adjusted for times they have worked when they had clocked out on the District’s time clock, including for lunch periods.’ …Sanchez… (said) that using this method to calculate police officer overtime compensation did not appear to conform to other employment practices of the District and the FLSA…Her conclusion stated that…action will be taken by the District Administration with this decision.”
When asked if her decision was upheld, Sanchez declined comment.
The five officers appealed Sanchez’ decision on all other matters, and on Aug. 20, 2013 they had a hearing in front of the Board in executive session where issues brought before Sanchez were reiterated.
At that time, officers “brought up the fact that they were still being paid incorrectly and counsel for the District had not provided officers counsel the assembled data and had not returned phone calls about paying officers what they were owed,” according to documentation provided by Jones.
In May of 2013, the Board voted to place Limón on administrative leave with pay. On Jan. 17, Garcia was demoted by Interim Superintendent Ismael Cantu, reasoning that it was for the “safety and security” of the District. That same day, Cantu promoted Naranjo to interim chief and gave a small stipend, which increased the latter’s salary to approximately $49,000.00.
Meanwhile, Garcia, who was officially demoted, kept his pay of $63,489.00.
Regarding these allegations, Garcia declined comment.
On May 20, a new Board majority voted to remove Limón from administrative leave and reinstate him as Superintendent.
Immediately upon his return, on June 4, the suit alleges that Limón informed Naranjo that he would no longer supervise Garcia, who the superintendent said would be on a “special assignment.” The suit further explains, “On June 11, 2014, Limón officially reinstated Garcia as Chief of Police. He also officially demoted Naranjo, even though he told him that everyone said what an excellent chief he was and that he had done a very good job but he was being moved back down and his salary was going back to $33,308.00.”
Neither Limón or Garcia chose to comment on this issue.
Among other damages, Espinoza, Garza, Naranjo, Olivares and Reyes seek the following: unpaid wages, compensation for lost wages, prejudgment and post-judgment interest; expert fees; court fees, legal fees, back-pay, attorney’s fees and other benefits lost. Said officers also seek future protection in the form of: prohibiting SBCISD from engaging in unlawful employment practices; promotions and pay increases where applicable; benefits; reinstatements where applicable; and more.
As alleged in the suit, these officers are still not being paid time and one-half for overtime hours.