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El Paso is about to elect school board members. What makes a good trustee?

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Wednesday marks the start of the month-long candidate filing period for the May 1 school board elections in the El Paso, Ysleta and Socorro independent school districts. Four seats are up for election on each district’s board of trustees.

In Texas, there are few requirements to run for a seat on your local school board. Candidates must be United States citizens, 18 years old by the start of their term, Texas residents for at least a year prior to the Feb. 12 filing deadline and residents of the district they seek to represent for a minimum six months. They also must be registered to vote in that district as of the filing deadline.

Beyond these minimum requirements, state law doesn’t stipulate what qualifications make for an effective trustee. But to have an impact, school board members should be informed, have a vision, and have certain motivations and dispositions, education leaders told El Paso Matters.

“If we want school systems to produce different outcomes, we need people leading them who have the knowledge, the insight and the network to build different systems,” said Elisa Hoffman, a former Cincinnati Public Schools board member and founder and executive director of School Board School, a training program for aspiring board members. “School board members are one of the critical components of the leaders who can change that system.”

Understanding the role of a board member

To be an effective school board member, you need to understand the role. “If you get elected to the position where you don’t understand the role, you can actually end up doing real harm to a school system,” Hoffman said.

A school board is responsible for governing a district while the administration manages the district. “The board will determine the what — the big picture — and the administration determines the how — the day-to-day operations,” Hoffman said. 

For example, the board can set attendance goals for the district and create a new attendance policy, but it is the administration’s job to implement that policy, which includes training teachers, establishing procedures and communicating the policy to families.

A common misconception parents have is that their school board member can help with school-specific issues, such as a student’s bus arriving late. But if the board starts hearing from a dozen parents about issues with bus routes, it may decide to review the district’s transportation policies.

It’s also important for future board members to understand that they don’t have any authority as an individual, said Phil Gore, director of the Texas Association of School Boards’ development services and a former board member for a district outside Seattle. “The Texas Education Code is very clear on this,” he said. “The board only as an entity has any authority or power.”

In addition to setting district goals for student outcomes, school boards determine funding priorities. They adopt billion-dollar budgets and set property tax rates annually. They also oversee the superintendent, who they have the power to fire and hire.

Broad understanding of districtwide needs

Candidates who want to run on a single-issue or narrow agenda aren’t a good fit for the role, Gore said, because the board “has the responsibility to oversee and govern the district as a whole, not just solve one little problem or another little problem.”

Candidates need to “understand the larger picture of what’s happening in your community so that the decisions you’re going to make are going to affect not just your neighborhood, but positively impact your whole city and whole community,” Hoffman said. Candidates elected to represent a single-member district encompassing a high school feeder pattern must understand that the district as a whole won’t be successful if board members are only focused on their schools’ priorities.

In El Paso, understanding the larger picture includes recognizing that many schools serve mostly low-income students, many of whom are English language learners, said Rodolfo Rincones, a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Foundations at the University of Texas at El Paso.

“The school boards need to understand issues of social justice. In my mind that’s very critical,” Rincones said. Candidates should be concerned about equity issues and be able to think critically about the schools and students with the greatest needs, even if those aren’t in their district. They must also be cognizant of the fact that a one-size-fits-all solution won’t work for every school, he said.

Having an understanding of your district’s history from a racial equity perspective is important, said Patricia Arvanitis, co-founder and CEO of Leadership ISD, a nonprofit that trains future education leaders in Harris, Dallas and Tarrant counties. That includes familiarizing yourself with student performance data, particularly when it comes to third grade reading and math, eighth grade math and college and career readiness, she said. That data reveals which campuses aren’t performing as well as others, and performance disparities across different student groups.

Traits of an effective board member

Prior governance, racial consciousness and conflict resolution training are useful for candidates to have, Arvanitis said. “But what you absolutely have to have is a desire to support the success of all the children in your district and to create policies and practices that allow children to thrive,” she said.

Experience in education isn’t necessary, but a desire to continually learn about education issues and the ability to keep an open mind are important, she said. So too is willingness to listen and learn from students, parents, school staff and other community members.

Candidates should ask themselves whether they would be able to work as a team and be willing to compromise. “School boards don’t accomplish anything without a really intentional team effort,” Gore said.

Another important question to ask yourself is whether you have the time for the role. In Texas, school board trustees serve a four-year term. They are not paid for their service, which can be quite time-intensive. In addition to attending monthly board meetings and workshops, trustees are frequent guests at district events. 

Steps to take if you’re thinking of running

A candidate thinking of running should watch as many archived recordings of school board meetings as they can to familiarize themselves with the work and the role, Hoffman said. That’s also a way to learn about the issues boards are and aren’t talking about, especially when it comes to issues you think are important but overlooked.

Getting in touch with current or former board members is helpful so you can learn about the role, the time commitment and the big things the board is working on. So too is talking to a wide range of constituents and school staff to learn about their vision and goals for the district.

A candidate should also make sure they can articulate a handful of things they believe need to change that are within the board’s realm.

How to file for a place on the May 1 ballot

The candidate filing period runs from Wednesday, Jan. 13, through Friday, Feb. 12. The following seats are up for election on May 1:

El Paso ISD

  • District 1 — Bowie and El Paso High Schools
  • District 3 — Austin High School and College Career Technology Academy
  • District 4 — Chapin and Irvin High Schools
  • District 5 — Andress and Transmountain Early College High Schools

Ysleta ISD

  • District 1 — Riverside High School
  • District 3 — Parkland High School
  • District 5 — Hanks High School
  • District 7 — Del Valle High School

Socorro ISD

  • District 2 — Parts of the El Dorado, Pebble Hills, Americas and Eastlake High School feeder patterns
  • District 3 — Parts of the Montwood and El Dorado High Schools feeder patterns
  • District 4 — Parts of the Pebble Hills, Montwood, Americas, Eastlake and Socorro High Schools feeder patterns
  • District 5 — Parts of the Socorro, Eastlake and Americas High School feeder patterns

Candidates submit their application for a place on the May 1 ballot to their district. They need to appoint a campaign treasurer, even if they don’t plan to raise or spend any money for their campaign. In Texas, candidates must appoint a treasurer before or upon applying for spot on the ballot.

These forms can be delivered in-person or via mail to EPISD at 1014 N. Stanton Street (Attn: Elizabeth Carrasco), via email to excarra1@episd.org or via fax to 915-230-0576. They can be delivered to YISD at 9600 Sims Drive (Attn: Monica Mathewson), via email to mmathewson@yisd.net or via fax to 915-491-4944. For SISD candidates, the forms can be sent to 12440 Rojas Drive (Attn: Claudia Maldonado), via email at cmaldo10@sisd.net or via fax to 915-851-7217.

Cover photo: Ysleta school board members Connie Woodruff, Mike Rosales and Sotero Ramirez III were sworn in by District Judge Anna Perez after winning races in the district’s last school board elections in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Ysleta Independent School District)

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Molly Smith

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, with stops in Austin, the Rio Grande Valley and now El Paso. She can be reached at mksmith@elpasomatters.org or 915-247-8857.

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