Since accepting Juan Cabrera’s resignation last month, the El Paso Independent School District Board of Trustees has yet to set a time frame for finding a permanent superintendent. In determining what the search process will look like, the school board must decide — and quickly — whether to wrap it up before May’s school board election.

Four of the seven board seats are up for election on May 1, 2021. At least one incumbent may not seek re-election, perhaps as many as three.

The school board hires, fires and evaluates the superintendent, who is also the district’s highest-paid employee.

“Choosing a superintendent is the most important thing, or duty, that a board member has,” Trustee Freddy Klayel-Avalos said.

Freddy Klayel-Avalos

“The Juan Cabrera era is the legacy of the board of managers, of which Dee Margo was president,” Klayel-Avalos said. “Our legacy will be this next era of the new superintendent … we’re not just voting on a person, we’re voting on the immediate and long term future for an entire district.”

This will be the first time in 15 years that an elected school board will hire a new superintendent. The state-appointed board of managers hired Cabrera in 2013. 

Before that, the board of trustees last hired a superintendent in 2006, when they selected Lorenzo García, who resigned following his August 2011 arrest on federal fraud charges. The other finalist identified by the school board in 2006, Jesus Gandara, later was convicted of corruption charges from his time as superintendent of a California school district.

Board President Bob Geske anticipates the board will convene in January to start discussing the search. That could include whether or not to hire a search firm to find and screen candidates, or do everything in house. The district and the board’s attorneys will lay out the options at that meeting, Gekse said.

At least one board seat could be open

Geske’s seat is up for election in May, along with those of trustees Josh Acevedo, Diane Dye and Chuck Taylor. 

Bob Geske

First elected in 2013, the Texas Education Agency barred Dye, Geske and Taylor from taking their seats until 2015 while the Board of Managers led EPISD through the wake of a districtwide cheating scheme. Voters re-elected all three in 2017 to a second four-year term.

Taylor, who represents the Andress High School area, said he is not planning to run for re-election next year, but left open the possibility of changing his mind.

Geske and Dye said they haven’t decided whether to seek a third term. Geske serves the Bowie and El Paso High School areas and Dye represents the Chapin and Irvin High School areas.

Acevedo, who represents the Austin High School area, said he is running in the May election. He has held the District 3 seat since June 2019, when he was narrowly elected to fill the remainder of Susie Byrd’s term.

The candidate filing period for the May 1 election runs from Jan. 13 to Feb. 12. If the races don’t go into a runoff, the new trustees could be sworn in by mid-May.

‘No right or wrong way’

It’s not uncommon for a superintendent search to coincide with a school board election, said Butch Felkner, director of the Texas Association of School Boards’ Executive Search Services. Ultimately, it’s a school board’s decision whether to make a hire prior to an election or instead wait until after the results are in.

“There is no certain or set way of doing it; there’s no right or wrong way,” Felkner said. “It’s just whatever they (the board) feel is best for them and their community.”

Some superintendent candidates may be apprehensive to apply for a position if it’s unknown who they might be working with, or if they’re unsure about their ability to work with a board, Felkner said. “We have a strong philosophy: don’t apply for a position that you don’t think you can stay in for several years,” he added.

Others aren’t put off by the possibility that they may not be working for the board members who hired them. “Overall, if they (candidates) feel well about the district, the prior leadership and the direction the district is going, and that the district’s in good shape, it takes the anxiety out of it,” Felkner said.

James Guerra, president and CEO of JG Consulting, the firm the Austin Independent School District selected last year to lead its superintendent search, said he typically recommends a board name a lone finalist prior to an election if a majority of the board is up for election.

“That’s a significant flip. That will determine also the outcome and the quality of the candidates that apply (for the superintendent position),” Guerra said.

“Qualified candidates, sitting superintendents — they want stability,” he said. “The number one question that we get as a search firm is never about salary, it’s what is the dynamic of the school board.”

Majority of board supports post-election hire

Four of EPISD’s seven trustees said they favor making the hire after May 1. Acevedo, Taylor, Klayel-Avalos and Daniel Call said whoever is on the board following the election should select the new superintendent.

“To take that (decision) away from a board member who just got elected, or who will just be elected, isn’t illegal but it lacks poise in the process,” Klayel-Avalos said.

Acevedo cautioned against rushing the hiring process, saying it needs to be transparent and include the community. One of the best ways to involve the community is by making the hire after the election, Call said.

Diane Dye

When asked for her opinion, Dye didn’t initially answer, instead directing El Paso Matters to Geske and Board Vice President Al Velarde for comment. When told every trustee was being asked to weigh in on the matter, Dye said via text message that setting the 2020-21 budget should be the priority.

“The election is not my priority,” Velarde said. Instead, it’s “finding the right person and that that person is hired in time to start” ideally around EPISD’s new fiscal year, which begins July 1, 2021.

Geske said he supports hiring a permanent superintendent as soon as possible.

Board will have to decide whether to hire a search firm

The decision of when to make a hire may be determined less by the election but how soon the board begins the search process.

It takes an average four to five months to hire a superintendent from the time a firm is hired, Felkner said. That includes the state-mandated 21-day waiting period between naming a lone finalist for the position and offering that person a contract.

“It can be done quicker than that, but we don’t advise that because it kind of rushes the process,” Felkner said.

Most large districts elect to hire a firm to oversee their superintendent search. “It’s a pretty arduous task for a board to take on themselves,” Felkner said. Firms advertise the position, serve as a point of contact for applicants, collect and store applications and check applicant references. Once a board narrows down the list of finalists, the firm schedules interviews.

Though the typical route, some trustees signaled they may want to handle the entire process themselves.

Acevedo, Call and Klayel-Avalos were critical of the fact candidates can pay some firms to bump their resume to the top of a candidate list. They, along with Geske, also expressed concern about the cost of using a firm.

That cost varies, with the Austin American-Statesman reporting Austin ISD paid JG Consulting $22,500 to oversee its superintendent search, which drew 64 candidates. The Austin school board hired Stephanie Elizalde, the former chief of school leadership for the Dallas Independent School District.

The start of the 2020-21 school year is another factor that could affect EPISD’s time frame, Guerra said.

“The incoming superintendent needs some runway to get acclimated and assimilated to the community, the district, the staff and the students,” Guerra said. “If they (trustees) start (the search) in January, that gives the incoming person some runaway at the end of this calendar school year and the summer to transition.”

On top of that, the competition for new superintendents is fierce, he said. The coronavirus pandemic has led more superintendents nationwide to retire earlier than planned and Guerra said his firm is the busiest it’s ever been.

More than a dozen Texas districts are or will soon start the process of finding a new leader.

“The longer the wait, the more competition they’re going to have competing for other quality candidates,” Guerra said.

Molly Smith has been a reporter for the El Paso Times and The (McAllen) Monitor. She’s covered education, criminal justice and local government. A Seattle native, she’s lived in Texas since 2014.