Since January, $61,000 in campaign contributions has flowed into the El Paso and Socorro school board races, finance reports filed last week show. 

More than half of that funding comes from special interest groups rather than private individuals. The biggest financial backers are a pro-charter school political action committee, teachers unions and law enforcement and contractors groups, according to an El Paso Matters analysis of campaign finance reports filed April 1.

Close to $32,000 is fueling the four contested El Paso Independent School District Board of Trustees races, which have drawn more interest than usual because the winners will select the next superintendent.

Kids First of El Paso PAC, which is tied to the Council on Regional Economic Expansion and Educational Development, or CREEED, gave four candidates a combined $11,053 worth of in-kind donations for campaign services, including voter canvassing and candidate mailers.

Isabel Hernandez and Israel Irrobali, who are running for the District 4 and 5 seats, each reported receiving $2,733 from Kids First, and District 3 candidate Leslie Hoard reported receiving $3,348. Though District 1 candidate Jennie Tipton-Lasley’s report was incomplete and did not include list in-kind contributions, the PAC’s report shows it gave her at least $2,108.

“They all kind of share our general view as it pertains to our strategic plan to really put our attention on expanding the number of high-performing seats, high-performing schools, which from our standpoint translates to preparing students to be post-secondary ready,” said CREEED Executive Director Eddie Rodriguez, who is the PAC’s treasurer.

The nonprofit invests in various education initiatives, including charter schools, dual credit courses and teacher development.

Financial support is not contingent upon a candidates’ support of charter schools, Rodriguez said.

Though it did not donate to EPISD school board candidates in 2019, Kids First gave District 6 and 7 trustees Freddy Klayel-Avalos and Daniel Call each $1,000 in the weeks following their election to the board, campaign finance reports posted on EPISD’s website show. That money was used to pay off their campaign debt, Rodriguez said.

This election season, Kids First has raised $61,400, most of which came from CREEED board Chair Richard Castro and board Vice Chair Woody Hunt, who each gave $28,000. Rodriguez gave $700.

Vince Perez, the former county commissioner and husband of state Rep. Claudia Ordaz Perez, is helping with the EPISD campaigns. Rodriguez declined to share how much Kids First is paying Perez, whose compensation is not listed on the PAC’s report.

Kids First is not financially backing any candidates running for the Socorro Independent School District Board of Trustees. “(The EPISD) races, given the size of this district and its influence, probably merited our attention more directly,” Rodriguez said.

The Ysleta Independent School District Board of Trustees canceled its May 1 election because no one challenged the incumbents.

The April 1 campaign finance reports cover the period from Jan. 1 to March 22. The El Paso chapter of the American Federation of Teachers gave $2,000 to four candidates on March 29: Leah Hanany (District 1), incumbent Josh Acevedo (3), Betty Ann Halliburton (4) and Vanessa Betts (5).

“They understand the need for community engagement and accountability by the district to the community, and they are all very firmly anti-privatization,” said Ross Moore, El Paso AFT president.

The El Paso Teachers Association is supporting the same four candidates and will provide them with in-kind support through mailers and canvassing, President Norma De La Rosa said.

Opposition to charters was a condition of the unions’ support.

The El Paso Association of Contractors has put the most money into the Socorro ISD races so far, donating $2,500 to each of the incumbents: Cindy Najera (District 2), Angelica Rodriguez (3), Paul Guerra (4) and Gary Gandara (5).

The Socorro chapter of the American Federation of Teachers also donated $1,500 to Najera, Rodriguez, Guerra and Gandara.

Socorro AFT President Veronica Hernandez said the union is backing the incumbents “because during this pandemic, they have proven to us that they are behind the employees … to make sure their health and safety come first.”

District 3 candidate Ricardo Castellano reported an $1,863 contribution from Empowered Educators, which he described as a small group of non-union SISD employees. The report does not identify which individuals provided the money.

Castellano, a former El Paso police officer, also received $1,500 from the El Paso Municipal Police Officers Association and $1,000 from the El Paso Sheriff’s Officers Association. The police officers union pledged $1,000 to District 5 candidate Pablo Barrera, his report shows. Barrera is a retired Border Patrol agent.

“I have no direct influence on any law enforcement issue, but law enforcement officers live in our district,” Castellano said. “It affects their children, it affects their property tax.”

The law enforcement groups did not enter SISD’s 2019 elections, but archived campaign finance reports on the district website show the sheriff’s association gave $250 to candidate Dennis Redd in 2017. That same year, the Horizon City Police Association gave current At-Large Trustee David Morales $100.

Here’s how much the EPISD and SISD candidates have raised, according to their reports:

EPISD, District 1: Arturo Dominguez reported raising $2,090, but his report adds up to $1,990; he has $4,000 in loans. Leah Hanany raised $1,000 and reported $74 in unitemized contributions. Jennie Tipton Lasley raised $900.

EPISD, District 3: Josh Acevedo raised $950, Rene Fierro reported $0 and Leslie Hoard received $3,348 in in-kind and pledged contributions.

EPISD, District 4: Betty Ann Halliburton raised $2,000, Fainot Pierre raised $185 and Isabel Hernandez raised $250 and received $2,733 in in-kind and pledged contributions. Frances De Santos Whitaker, Diane Dye and Claudia Soto did not submit reports, which are required regardless of whether a candidate raised or spent funds.

EPISD, District 5: Vanessa Betts raised $3,440 and received $500 in in-kind contributions. Willeta Corbett reported raising $5,696, but her report adds up to $5,921; she received $729 in in-kind contributions. Stephen Hayes received $1,429 and received $200 in in-kind contributions. Israel Irrobali raised $1,200 and received $2,733 in in-kind and pledged contributions. Jerome Tilghman did not submit a report.

SISD, District 2: Cindy Najera raised $6,250 and has $1,000 in loans that she repaid. William Carrasco raised $0. Jack Duncan and Veronica Esparza did not submit reports.

SISD, District 3: Fancy Adams raised $357, Angelica Rodriguez raised $4,250 and Ricardo Castellano raised $4,813.

SISD, District 4: Paul Guerra raised $6,650 and Jaime Martinez raised $1,350.

SISD, District 5: Pablo Barrera raised $390 and received $1,000 in pledged contributions. Gary Gandara raised $4,250.

Cover illustration courtesy of Alaska Public Media.

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.