Voters living within the Ysleta school district boundaries won’t cast a ballot this spring to fill four seats on the seven-member school board.

On Wednesday, the Ysleta Independent School District Board of Trustees canceled its May 1 election and declared the four incumbents re-elected to a four-year term.

Trustees Carlos Bustillos, Cruz Ochoa and Kathryn Lucero were first elected in May 2017 and trustee Shane Haggerty was appointed to fill a board vacancy last May, having previously served from 2010 to 2017. All four were running unopposed this year.

Though this is the first time in recent memory YISD has canceled a school board election, candidates have previously run unopposed. In May 2019, trustees Mike Rosales and Connie Woodruff did not face challengers. That means that of the seven trustees currently serving only one — Sotero Ramirez in 2019 — faced opposition in their most recent election.

In 2017, Lucero was unopposed as was Richard Couder, whose seat Haggerty filled.

Nationwide, large numbers of school board members don’t face electoral competition, though a lack of candidates is more common for rural districts than urban ones like Ysleta.

The El Paso and Socorro school districts have contested races for the four trustee seats each has in the May 1 election.

A 2014 survey of 5,000 board members nationwide found that about 40% ran unopposed in their previous election, said Michael Ford, an associate professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, who co-authored the study. While 70% of urban districts’ elections were contested, that number dropped to 56% for small towns and rural areas.

“There is a huge number of school board members in the United States that do not face electoral competition, and that problem is particularly acute in rural areas,” Ford said.

Dax González, Texas Association of School Boards Governmental Relations division director, echoed those findings.

“It’s not unheard of, especially in smaller, more rural communities where you might not have the level of interest or engagement on the public level to run for the school board,” González said. 

TASB does not track how many candidates run unopposed or canceled school board elections. Ford found that 35% of Texas trustees in 2014 reported not having an opponent in their previous election.

YISD isn’t the El Paso County district to cancel its May election this year. The Anthony Independent School District and the San Elizario Independent School District did so as well, though SEISD voters will head to the polls if multiple candidates file for the special election to fill the remaining two years on the vacant Place 6 seat.

González pointed to a variety of reasons why school board races are uncontested.

“That could be because sometimes they (constituents) don’t understand what a school board does, or it could be because they are perfectly happy with the people that are currently in office and running again,” he said. It’s also a time-intensive position that is unpaid.

Haggerty attributed the absence of candidates this year to the community’s confidence in the board.

“To not have anybody step up to run against me isn’t by any means apathy because we look at the other two elections going on out in the Northeast for the EPISD here (and) there’s multiple candidates for each,” he said during Wednesday’s board meeting.

Though Ysleta Teachers Association President Arlinda Valencia has never seen a board election canceled in her three decades with the district, she welcomed the cancelation because it meant not having to run a campaign during a pandemic.

“As an association we are very happy that we did not get any opponents because these people on our board, they do listen and they don’t just take the word of the administration. They always look to listen to both sides,” Valencia said.

She too attributed the lack of challengers to community satisfaction with the current trustees.

“If someone is doing a really bad job, there’s always going to be candidates running against them,” she said.

But national surveys on public satisfaction with local schools don’t support the reality that “40% of school board races are a result of people being completely satisfied,” Ford said. “Certainly it doesn’t line up with what I see at the local level when I study school boards around the country.”

The high rate of uncontested elections is problematic, Ford said: “The democratic governance model for school board elections in the U.S. is electoral accountability, and in many places, that’s just not happening.”

Lack of electoral competition can erode public trust in a board or create a situation where a “small vocal group of special interests” is able to assume control of a board’s majority, he said.

Getting more candidates to run will require understanding why that isn’t currently happening, Ford said. It could also entail increasing the authority a local board has in the education system, especially when much of education policy is dictated by the state.

“If you gave more power to local school boards, they’d be more consequential, and certainly I think there would be more interest in people running,” he said.

Other ideas include holding school board elections in November alongside other major elections, something trustees can decide to do, or giving members stipends, which in Texas would require a legislative fix.

Cover photo courtesy of Ysleta Independent School District

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.