A former member from a once controversial Texas school district board of trustees may be placing his name back in the hat for another place at the table.
NewsLegit.com has received calls and correspondence from citizens of a friendly town, about 30 minutes southeast of San Antonio, Texas indicating John Bilicek may be seeking a comeback seat on the board in the upcoming May 6, 2017 election. Bilicek lost his Place 3 position on the board in May 2013 when 723 votes when to his opponent, Susan Reinhard. Bilicek had only 182 votes making it one of the voting largest margins in La Vernia history.
The drama began in the fall of 2010 as students were coming home telling their parents that their 7th grade teacher was appearing erratic and sometimes went missing from the classroom. According to parents who voiced concerns verbally and in writing, the superintendent and school board ignored them. As episodes of “bizarre behavior and even getting sick in the classroom” escalated, parents become more vocal
Trouble spilled over for the La Vernia Independent School Board in March 2011 when the teacher was arrested for drugs and resisting arrest. The teacher’s mother was the administrative assistant for the superintendent and the sister to the county sheriff. Shortly after the teacher’s arrest, her mother and the district’s director of operations ceased employment with the district.
On March 30th, the community was saddened by the sudden death of a very popular assistant principal Glen Hendrickson. Hendrickson, the husband of an elementary school teacher and father of two boys, was assistant vice principal of La Vernia Junior High School with Wildenstein and where the arrested teacher taught.
Sources indicated Hendrickson left the school after 10 a.m. to drive to Floresville to deliver test papers. He then visited the teacher at the Wilson Country Jail and soon called his mother, Jenny Hendrickson in Houston. When Mrs. Hendrickson became concerned about the phone conversation she traveled to La Vernia to discover her son dead in his bedroom at home in the Rosewood sub-division.
Growing tension among teachers and parents with school administration, and brewing concerns with the school board’s lack of communication, left many parents and citizens in turmoil.
By October 2011, the principal of the school, Maria Wildenstein resigned. According to her, it was because of pressure from district superintendent Dr. Thomas Harvey. Questions from parents, students and students in the community remained largely unanswered allowing rumors, reports and concerns to run rampant. Many of the rumors turned out to be true when the local police department issued a warrant for the arrest of Wildenstein in November 2011. She was then indicted by a Wilson County grand jury on misapplication by a fiduciary, a third degree felony.
The La Vernia school district board included president Mike Jendrusch, vice president Janice Gimbel, secretary John Bilicek, James Barnett, Eric Friedrichs, Richard
Schier and David Watson. Out of frustration from the cavalier attitude of the school board, school employees and community members started sharing information with the Examiner.com’s blogger Jack Dennis (author of this article) and among themselves.
A mother, Jennifer Moczygemba, stepped forward with issues that seemed to be getting swept under the rug by Superintendent Harvey, and board of trustee president Jendrusch.
After failed attempts by many parents to get answers or resolution to their concerns through letters, emails, phone conversations and even in public school board meetings, Moczygemba resorted to using the Public Information Act to gather the information that was being withheld.
What she discovered was shocking and rocked the ‘good ‘ole boy’ syndrome of La Vernia to the core.
“To name a few, allegations of embezzlement, a questionable land purchase by the ISD from the ISD’s director of finance, misuse of state grant funds, suicide of an assistant principal, a classroom teacher with a methamphetamine habit and her subsequent arrest, teacher who slapped a student, rampant nepotism, recurrent intimidation by a superintendent and other district leadership, reprimands for teachers and staff that speak out or question the ethics of district practices, and lastly, patterns of declining annual test scores,” she wrote.
“I have reached out to our school board, local authorities, Texas Rangers, Texas Education Agency (TEA), State Auditor’s Office, Texas State Board of Public Accountancy, and local media outlets,” Moczygemba stated. “Recently, in a conversation with a TEA employee, I was told they were so under staffed and over mandated, that they had no time to assist us without the spotlight of media attention.”
Moczygemba’s determined spirit eventually led to the La Vernia Police Department “in conjunction with the Wilson County District Attorney’s office” to work “on an investigation pertaining to allegations of fraud and embezzlement.”
“The progress has been very slow,” she told the officials. “However, the other remaining issues have yet to be explored, despite the fact that I possess documentation and clear evidence on each of them.”
“The school board has been unresponsive to the public on all of these issues,” she stated in the letters to the FBI, Office of Inspector General of the Department of Education and others. “Not surprising, as they have an unshakable allegiance to the district superintendent.”
The school board had been “clearly protective” of the nepotism (some of their own are school employees) and the superintendent, Moczygemba echoed the thoughts of many citizens.
“This message was clearly reinforced with the recent board vote to extend the superintendent’s contract for an additional two years giving the superintendent a contract with the district until March 5, 2017, despite ongoing turmoil and the public’s discontent with district leadership and their continued lack of transparency,” wrote Moczygemba.
During a school board meeting the wife of a La Vernia police official confirmed her husband was having an affair with a married principal of at one of Harvey’s schools. The principal’s and policeman’s affair was discovered by his spouse from a series of emails, video clips and other correspondence to each other.
Concerns of citizens and parents were than just this investigation. They regarded a parade of troubles within the school district during the previous several years. The school board, including Bilicek, remained by Harvey’s side despite the district’s falling grades, rampant nepotism, drop in student morale, and growing number of fearful teachers.
Hendrickson’s good friend, who has known him many years, and asked not to be named, agreed.
“We talked on the phone the Sunday before he died,” his longtime friend said. “He was worried about many things, some personal, but mostly about things at school. Glenn was the type of guy who really cared about the students and doing things right, but he felt he was under a lot of pressure and saw things going on he did not feel right about.”
His friend said one particular parent of an unruly child was causing much havoc in school.
“He wasn’t getting the support he needed from up above and this just made things more difficult,” the friend continued. “Glen was also concerned about some shell games going on with grant money he didn’t want to see going on, and he said he was being constantly ridiculed about a trip he took with his wife and other teachers in January even though it was approved.”
“I know he was very afraid of powerful people in the school district and was afraid he was being set up if something went wrong with the shell games that were being played,” Hendrickson’s friend stated.
In April 2011, a teacher, related to this situation at the school, contacted Jack Dennis, the reporter who broke the story open.
“I have had to take FMLA leave and continue to seek medical and psychological treatment due to lack of disciplinary support from the administration,” the teacher wrote. “I have been at LVISD for 14 years. Last year I started to retire but changed my mind.”
“To continue to work I had to sign a ‘probationary contract’,” the teacher continued. “I have learned that administration does not plan to renew this contract for next year. I am ready to speak with anyone who is concerned about the dire situation at LVISD.”
Later, the school board agreed to settle the teacher’s concerns with him.
In September 2011 assistant superintendent Dr. Diane Fischer contacted Wildenstein and told the former principal Harvey was concerned that she had allowed Dennis to interview her.
“I told Fischer to tell Harvey to keep you out of the middle of all this,” Wildenstein said.
Wildenstein, on the advice of her attorney had never been interviewed by Dennis, but relayed very limited inquiries through email early on.
Over 35 LVISD teachers, administrators, and staff had contacted Jack Dennis. Over 75 parents, citizens and church members have corresponded or provided information in regards to the LVISD and La Vernia politics.
Harvey was able to site the death of Hendrickson, in part, as an excuse in a September 1, 2011 letter to Dr. Robert Scott, president of Texas Education Agency (TEA) explaining about the decrease in student’s test ratings.
Harvey explained how popular Hendrickson was, and “because of the crowd at the funeral, a separate and special memorial service by and for the students of the district were held on Sunday, April 3, 2011 in the city’s park.”
“Computer bloggers and online newspapers were keeping the issues stirred and ever-pressing,” Harvey continued. “Not only was Hendrickson’s suicide an issue, the questions as to why were constantly present.”
Harvey appealed that the TAKS test had many LVISD students taking the exam just one day after the memorial, while others took it on April 26-29, 2011.
Earlier that year, LVParents.org, a group of concerned parents, went through the public information request process to obtain information about 89 acres of land purchased by LVISD in 2010. They requested the information from LVISD and the Texas Education Agency (TEA), the state organization that oversees public education.
On August 12, 2010, Superintendent Harvey signed an “Alternate Withdrawal Request” to authorize $857,319.92 from the Lone Star Investment Pool and State Street Bank and Trust to be transferred to an escrow account to a title company set up at the First National Bank of Floresville. The authorization required another signature.
Laura Ramzinski, the LVISD finance director and husband of Bernie Ramzinski, signed the document below Harvey’s signature. She also signed the journal voucher. The Ramzinski’s owned this property.
With Jendrush’s and Ramzinski’ name being thrown into the mud, a concerned citizen complained formally to TEA and “alleged a conflict of interest existed in this transaction,” Harvey had some explaining to do.
In a December 10, 2010 letter to Harvey from Michael J. Richmond, Director of Investigative Audits, Division of Financial Audits for TEA, acknowledged the superintendent’s response to the district’s “purchase of 89 acres of land on FM 1346 from the spouse of a LVISD employee.”
The TEA letter said there is a legal requirement that a “local public official” must file “an affidavit disclosing the conflict of interest and to abstain from further participation in the matter.”
According to a Texas Attorney General Opinion (GA-0169), the “local public official” would include “people such as LVISD’s Finance Director.”
A survey obtained by the parent’s group was for only a 60-acre tract of land appraised on June 19, according to R. Kent Carter of Advanced Evaluation Service, not the total 89 acres purchased for $857,000.
Carter reported the “market value of the fee simple interest of the subject property” at $630,000.
The owner was listed as Bernie Edward Ramzinski. He estimated the value of the 60 acre tract at $10,500 per acre, comparing it to properties in Bexar and Wilson counties.
In March 2012, angry parents and students held signs against Harvey and waited outside the LVISD Administration Building while the board voted to extend Harvey’s contract five more years. When school board trustees Mike Jendrusch and John Bilicek the School Board Meeting that Monday night, they rushed over to their local church feeling the wrath of the mothers and fathers they had continued to upset in their community.
“They looked like they had been through the wringer,” one of the church members of St. Ann Catholic Church described them as they walked in late. Jendrusch, the District’s school trustee president, is also the social coordinator for the Men’s ACTS Retreat at Church.
“They need to learn that when it comes to our children, it’s time to quit scratching each other’s backs, stop playing around, and ticking off these moms,” another parishioner told Dennis. “Hell hath no fury like a Mom scorned.”
According to a post on the group, www.LVparents.org, the parents came to show Jendrusch, Bilicek, and board members “that we are no longer going to idly sit by and allow our schools to deteriorate.”
Since a March 6, 2012 “Executive Session” private meeting when the board hastily voted to extend the contract of controversial Superintendent Tom Harvey to five years, the group grew to 150 members.
Jennifer Moczygemba, a member of the Church and the mother who led the charge against the board, received a standing ovation and prolonged applause when she acknowledged Eric Frederick, the only Board Member with the bravery and courtesy to listen “to the voice of La Vernia parents.”
In the city of 1200, the voices of the parents were heard. While most of La Vernia’s elections see no more than 200 voters, May 2013 turned out to be a historical election. Board president Jendrusch, a steadfast supporter of Dr. Harvey, lost to mom Janette Chall by a landslide, 887 to 237.
Susan Reinhard, who beat incumbent John Bilicek 723 to 182 in Place 3, said she would encourage “input from the teachers, staff, parents and students.”
“My first priority is to work to ensure that our employees feel free to express concerns and needs without fear of retaliation,” said Cody Miller, who beat incumbent Eric Frederichs 641 to 414 for Place 4 spot.
Kimi Kravitz won the Place 2 seat over incumbent Richard Shier 842 to 219.
“We have many wonderful people in La Vernia that have great ideas which need to be heard and shared,” Kravitz said.
Kravitz said the new board’s intent was “to start by making the school board meetings a welcoming and informative place to be.”
She said she would work with other school board trustees and La Vernia citizens “to make our district ‘the one’ that other districts want to model because of its open lines of communication, trust, transparency, fiscal responsibility, happy and safe employees and students, and truly a district of academic excellence. Our kids come first.”