Texas won’t force city to restore schools’ water

The La Villa Independent School District's farm sits locked up in La Villa, Texas. A water payment dispute between the city and school district has shut down the schools and forced students to move their livestock elsewhere. (AP Photo/Chris Sherman)

McALLEN, Texas (AP) — A state commission declined Wednesday to force a South Texas city to turn its school district’s water back on so classes can resume, but city officials said they would meet in the evening in hopes of negotiating an end to the standoff.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality rejected La Villa Independent School District’s request for an emergency order, noting the commission isn’t authorized to intervene in the water fee dispute between La Villa and the district.

“This is probably one of the most upsetting cases that I’ve looked at,” said Commissioner Toby Baker. “I’m upset that we’ve got a bunch of kids who are pawns in some deal that’s going on between the city and the ISD.”

The city cut water to the district after students left for holiday vacation, saying the district owes about $58,000 on its water bill. The district has been paying at an old rate after objecting to a December 2012 rate hike.

Classes were to resume Monday, but schools have remained closed.

By Wednesday afternoon, interim city attorney Roel Gutierrez was hopeful the dispute was nearing resolution. City officials who planned to meet later were prepared to agree to a lower water and sewer surcharge than has been sought for the past year.

“This puts pressure on (the school district) to negotiate,” Gutierrez said of the commission’s decision to not intervene. He said if an agreement could be reached Wednesday night on the new rate and on the debt the city says the school district owes, the water could be back on by Thursday morning.

Schools superintendent Narciso Garcia did not immediately return messages left on his cellphone from The Associated Press on Wednesday afternoon.

Turning off the taps was the most dramatic move in a dispute that has lasted for more than a year.

In December 2011, the city approved adding a surcharge for water and sewer service to the school district on top of the usage rate. It initially was set at $10 per person — students, staff — but the district fought it down to $6 and the two sides inked an agreement in November 2012. But the city commission turned around the following month and raised the surcharge to $14.

In a letter to the commission this week, the city said it has numerous issues with its water and sewer system, including “a general distrust of the quality of the drinking water in the city of La Villa.”

The school district in fact buys purified water from elsewhere for drinking.

A rate study commissioned by the city in 2007 recommended rate increases because the system had been operating at a loss.

Richard Fryer, an attorney representing the school district, told commissioners at Wednesday’s hearing that the city is treating the school district like it’s the solution to its financial problems.

“The city is seeing the golden goose being the schools,” Fryer said.

Gutierrez told commissioners it was simply a billing dispute and the water was cut in an effort to get the district to pay its bill.

“The district has the money and the funds to pay the balance and restore water to the school district,” Gutierrez said.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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