The El Paso Independent School District administration building. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The next superintendent of the El Paso Independent School District will have a difficult task ahead. Whoever takes the helm of the city’s largest district will need to get students back on track after months of lost academic progress caused by the pandemic. The superintendent will also have to bring back students who left this fall to attend private or charter schools, which opened classrooms to face-to-face instruction.

The school board will meet Tuesday to discuss the search process for Juan Cabrera’s replacement. Cabrera resigned Nov. 5, less than two months after being sued in California state court, along with former school board President Dori Fenenbock, to recover $5 million they allegedly defrauded from investors in her online school. His sudden departure was another black eye for a district that has struggled to mend its reputation in the wake of a cheating scandal that put Cabrera’s predecessor in federal prison.

Longtime EPISD administrator Vince Sheffield is serving as interim superintendent until a permanent hire is made.

Vince Sheffield

Parents, school staff and community members have a long list of skills and experience they want the next superintendent to have. Knowledge of a border region, strong communication skills and a willingness to engage with the community top the wishlist for EPISD’s next leader.

Internal candidates vs. out-of-towners

EPISD in recent decades has hired superintendents from outside El Paso. The last person promoted internally to superintendent was Charles Tafoya, who served from 2002-05. Lorenzo Garcia was hired from the Dallas Independent School District to succeed Tafoya in 2006 and resigned in 2011 after being indicted on federal fraud charges. Cabrera was an attorney in Austin before being hired in 2013 after EPISD went through a series of interim superintendents.

“We don’t want an out-of-towner. … They were out-of-towners who came in to save El Pasoans from themselves and make a lot of money and try to advance their careers,” said Ross Moore, president of the El Paso chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. “We want somebody who is committed to the community, part of the community and has spent most of their lives here.”

Norma De La Rosa, president of El Paso Teachers Association, said the school board should bypass a national search and look to hire from within EPISD or El Paso County’s education community. National searches are costly and the last few superintendents who were brought in through such a process were not good for the district, she said.

Both of the union leaders want the board to hire a longtime educator for the role. Cabrera was a non-traditional superintendent who briefly worked as an elementary school bilingual teacher before a legal career working with software companies and school districts.

EPISD would benefit from hiring an experienced educator, said David DeMatthews, an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Texas at Austin who previously taught at the University of Texas at El Paso. 

“A lot of what El Paso needs is somebody who understands how to work with families and communities and folks who have worked in schools and in districts have that type of experience,” he said.

It can also be difficult for teachers and principals to support a boss who doesn’t have experience doing their job. “When you have those experiences that are shared, I think there’s more trust there,” DeMatthews said.

It will be important for EPISD’s next leader to understand the needs of English language learners and immigrant students, but that doesn’t mean the board should limit itself to only looking at candidates from within the region, DeMatthews said. Educators who have worked in Laredo or San Diego may have valuable experience, and there are many aspiring superintendents or current superintendents who are El Paso natives or who began their career here.

Though many superintendents hold a doctorate of education, Moore and De La Rosa said the school board shouldn’t exclude candidates without this credential. Texas requires superintendents to have a master’s degree.

“The question is if you have a doctorate, how have you used the skills that you’ve learned to become a good leader,” De La Rosa said. “Someone who has a master’s can probably do the job just as well with enough administrative experience, having been a campus assistant principal, having been a principal, having worked in central office in several areas. It all comes down to what did he do to develop and establish relationships with everybody that that person worked with and how did he use those relationships to bring people together to work as a team.”

Getting out in the community

The next superintendent will need to make himself or herself accessible to the community, parents said. Cabrera was frequently criticized for not attending community events, from forums about school closures to graduation ceremonies.

Parents want to see increased communication from the district, particularly when it comes to instructional and scheduling changes like those seen during the pandemic, said EPISD Council of PTAs President Bridgette Valdes, whose children attend Mitzi Bond Elementary School.

“Even if you don’t have all the answers, I personally, and I think a lot of parents, appreciate just having some sort of communication even if it’s, ‘I don’t have that answer right now, this is what we’re working with but we hope to know by next week,’” she said. “Just hearing something is more reassuring as a parent.”

Familias Unidas del Chamizal, a community advocacy group that sued EPISD this summer over alleged discrimination against Spanish-speaking immigrant parents in the decision to close Beall and Burleson Elementary Schools, is urging the school board to hire a candidate who is fluent in Spanish.

“We’ve had countless community meetings where (EPISD) representatives did not understand the language, did not understand how to communicate with the community. And without that, it’s a superficial process altogether,” said member Cemelli De Aztlan.

The next superintendent must be willing to understand the unique needs of immigrant families who live in South-Central El Paso and actively work to involve immigrant parents in district decisions, said lead organizer Hilda Villegas, whose children attend Douglas Elementary School and Guillen Middle School. That goes beyond language and requires taking into account lack of access to things like transportation and technology, she said.

De La Rosa also hopes the next superintendent will prioritize meeting with teachers to learn what their students and classrooms need. “Right now the morale at the district is extremely, extremely low, and a big part of that is because employees feel they are not heard,” she said.

“It’s going to take a lot to rebuild this district to where it was and where it could be, but any superintendent coming in has to understand that they cannot move this district forward if they don’t have the full support of their employees and their community. And the only way they’re going to be able to have that is to make themselves accessible, listen and if there’s something that he says can’t happen, he needs to explain (why).”

Improving student performance

The new superintendent must focus on graduating college-ready students who will go on to earn a college degree or post-secondary certification, said Eddie Rodriguez, executive director of the Council on Regional Economic Expansion and Educational Development, a group of business and civic leaders who advocate for improved student performance. 

That person will need to continue EPISD’s track record of working closely with UTEP and El Paso Community College given the majority of area students enroll in these institutions, Rodriguez said.

Student success is a product of strong teachers, and EPISD, like districts across the state, must retain effective teachers. That will be particularly important in the coming year as teachers work to catch students up after the pandemic.

“Making sure that all of our students have an equal opportunity in learning” must be a priority for the new superintendent, said state Rep. Lina Ortega, whose district includes EPISD.

To do that, the new superintendent needs to develop the best teachers and principals he or she can, and put them in the schools where they’re most needed, DeMatthews said.

“COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted low-income students of color, many of whom in El Paso are English language learners — they get very specific interventions and supports in schools and because schools have been disrupted they’ve lost access to those,” he said. 

How to watch Tuesday’s school board meeting

The EPISD Board of Trustees will meet virtually at 9 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 5, to discuss the superintendent search. Members of the public can watch the meeting via Zoom, or stream it via the district’s website.

In addition to deciding whether to hire a firm to conduct the search, trustees will need to consider whether to select the lone superintendent finalist prior to May 1, when four board members are up for election.

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.