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South Texas school district closed over water bill dispute

Published time: January 14, 2014 21:18
AFP Photo /  Scott Halleran

AFP Photo / Scott Halleran

The school district in La Villa, Texas, has closed all its schools, leaving students unsure of when they’ll be back in the classroom – all over a disputed water bill.

Soon after students went on winter vacation in late December, La Villa shut off water and sewer services to the local schools, arguing that the district needs to pay off its remaining balance. The district, however, has refused to pay the increased rate the city wants because it believes the surcharge to be unfair.

The clash began over a year ago, when La Villa tried to raise the surcharge on the school to $10 a student, on top of the typical water rates. After negotiations whittled that number down to $6 in November 2012, the city made a surprise move the next month to raise the surcharge to $14.

Despite the increase, the school district has continued paying the previously agreed upon surcharge of $6 a head, a move that ultimately resulted in the city shutting down water services.

“Just like they decided to raise the rates, we decided not to pay them,” La Villa school Superintendent Narciso Garcia told the Brownsville Herald in December.

Speaking with Fox News, Garcia recently added that the city is trying to dip into the school district’s pockets in order to improve its own financial mismanagement. He said if the schools were to pay out what the city wanted, it would cost the district up to $28,000 a month.

“That money has been allocated by the state of Texas for our children’s education,” Garcia said. “We can’t just go off and spend it on things not related to education, like bailing out La Villa.”

According to the Associated Press, the city claims the school district owes it about $58,000.

“There’s a balance due, and they’re going to have to pay for the services,” City Manager Wilfredo Mata said to the Herald.

As Fox noted, La Villa has been mandated to spend $1 million in order to repair its water infrastructure, which is poor enough that the school district spends about $3,000 a year to give its students bottled water. The city has argued the rate increase, which has affected more than just the school district, is needed to make urgent upgrades.

"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),” said Mayor Hector Elizondo in December, according to the AP.

A hearing is scheduled on the matter for Wednesday, January 15. If the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality grants the district’s request for an emergency order, the city could be forced to turn water services back on in time for schools to reopen on Friday. Otherwise, the district will have to either give up and pay the surcharge or use other avenues to continue its battle.

Until then, though, students looking to get back in the classroom or continue their extracurricular activities are out of luck and considering other options, such as possibly finishing the school year at another institution. Students are expected to make up the missed days at the end of the year or during other vacations.

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