A former employee is challenging his dismissal from the Monte Alto Independent School District, alleging he was wrongfully terminated by the district for “perceived political association” with former board members.
Pete Riojas, the former executive director of business administration, filed a petition through his attorney, John Shergold, against Monte Alto ISD and four current board members. Riojas filed the petition federal court on Aug. 23.
The four defendants named in the suit are board President Connie Villanueva, Vice President Raul Valdez, Secretary Armando Lopez and Trustee Brenda Cavazos. Valdez, Cavazos and Lopez campaigned under the slogan “Expect more, Expect better” along with support from Villanueva, according to the petition. They formed the new majority on the school board following the 2018 election, the suit reads.
Riojas is alleging that his First Amendment and 14th Amendment rights were violated. The four trustees acted outside their “proper course and scope” of duties as board members with a termination based on politically motivations, he alleges in the suit. Riojas alleges that the new majority went on a “campaign retaliating” against employees who did not support them, or whom they had perceived of not supporting their faction.
Prior to his termination, the board majority met on Feb. 26 of this year and proposed his termination without his knowledge or notice, according to the petition. On March 4, correspondence signed by Villanueva had “false and pretextual reasons” for termination — reasons Riojas has denied. The letter also informed Riojas of a March 7 hearing to present his case and face the board members.
The four trustees voted to terminate Riojas from the district on March 7, according to the petition.
Riojas alleges the reasoning behind the termination was “pretextual” — based on false reasons — and that the “true reason” for the action was the majority’s belief and perception of a “political association” with “rival former board members political campaign and his involvement during the 2018 school board elections.”
The district’s former board members hired Riojas, who began work about Aug. 1, 2017, as the business manager in the human resources department with a one-year contract. The board members voted to extend his contract as the district’s executive director of business administration for the 2018-19 school year on May 23, 2018.
The plaintiff said he did not have any “adverse” employment action due to performance or other reasons, according to the complaint.
The defendants were motivated by “mistaken belief that Plaintiff had supported her opposing candidate and former board members during the 2018 school board elections,” according to the complaint.
Riojas requests exemplary damages in addition to compensatory damages against the defendants, an amount of $3 million, according to the original complaint. The plaintiff alleges he is also entitled to exemplary damages and compensatory damages of $1 million from each individual defendant, in order to deter future acts of this nature, the complaint reads.
School district attorney Benjamin Castillo of O’Hanlon, Demerath and Castillo — a law firm based in Austin with offices in Pharr and San Antonio — declined to provide comment on the complaint, as it is pending litigation, he said.
Shergold, the plaintiff’s attorney, also declined to speak as of press time, citing similar reasons as pending litigation and referred questions to the document for clarification.