Socorro Independent School District Superintendent José Espinoza congratulated a student at the opening of the Pebble Hills Early College campus in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Socorro ISD)

Updated 11:53 a.m. May 6 with additional details about the separation agreement

The Socorro Independent School District Board of Trustees agreed to buy out Superintendent José Espinoza’s contract Wednesday evening, ending his nine-year tenure leading the county’s second largest district.

Teachers in the audience gave Espinoza a standing ovation when the decision was announced, with some shouting, “We love you, Dr. E.” The board voted 6-0 for the board president and secretary to finalize a voluntary separation agreement with the superintendent.

Espinoza’s sudden departure comes days after two of the four members in the majority voting faction lost their re-election bids, giving board control to a group of relative newcomers who have been increasingly critical of Espinoza’s performance.

José Espinoza

The superintendent said he’d be returning to Houston, where he worked before coming to Socorro. He said he had “nine awesome years” since his September 2012 hiring and leaves with no regrets.

Espinoza, 50, will receive $629,308, which is equivalent to one year’s salary and benefits. He had five years left on his contract, according to the separation agreement. SISD will continue to fund his retirement plans.

Board president Cynthia “Cindy” Najera, Secretary Paul Guerra and Trustees Angelica Rodriguez, Gary Gandara, Eduardo “Eddie” Mena and David Morales voted to proceed with the agreement after a 1½-hour closed-door meeting.

“I know you’re going to go off to better places,” Gandara, an Espinoza ally who lost the District 5 seat Saturday after serving since 2013, told the superintendent.

“You had a vision of treating every student as your own … and we believed in that vision,” said Rodriguez, an Espinoza supporter who also was ousted Saturday. She had held the District 3 seat since 2010.

Najera and Guerra, the other Espinoza supporters on the board, were re-elected May 1 and praised his leadership.

“We understand why you have to leave, and we get it. And it’s a shame. And I hope that the public understands that we’re losing a strong superintendent,” Guerra said. “This is Team SISD and we will rebuild. I hope the new board members come in with not an agenda. There’s no agenda: The agenda is our district, our students.”

Mena and Morales, the board members most critical of Espinoza, wished him well.

The board did not name an interim superintendent Wednesday. Najera said that will happen once incoming District 3 Trustee Ricardo Castellano and District 5 Trustee Pablo Barrera are sworn in, likely on May 12.

Castellano and Barrera criticized Espinoza and the current board majority on the campaign trail, accusing them of lacking transparency.

Before the board announced its decision Wednesday night, Castellano and Barrera criticized them for acting before newly elected trustees took their seats.

“Remember, you have two newly elected officials coming in that people spoke for and you’re not giving us an opportunity to have a say, especially when we will be here for the next four years,” Barrera said during the public comment period. “This is a lack of transparency to the people and there are certain board members already setting the tone,” he added.

During the campaign, Barrera was particularly critical of a February 2020 internal audit that found that 29 high school students graduated in 2019 despite being ineligible to do so. Most of those students had not completed loss-of-credit contracts, which are assigned to students whose attendance falls below the state-mandated 90% threshold.

Trustees Mena, Morales and Paul Garcia — who were elected in May 2019 — were the most outspoken about the audit.

SISD “self-reported the results of the audit to the TEA and were provided with guidance on how to establish a corrective action plan,” district spokesperson Daniel Escobar said in a statement. That led the Texas Education Agency to open an investigation into the audit findings, he added.

The investigation remains open, TEA spokesperson Jake Kobersky said.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Espinoza said the graduation problems were discovered by an internal academic auditor position he created with support of the board.

“We say trust but verify,” he said, adding he put “systems in place to verify that we were doing what we need to do to make sure that every single student graduates college and career ready.”

Garcia resigned from his position April 21, citing “personal reasons” in a Facebook post announcing his decision. He supported Barrera and Castellano’s campaigns to unseat the incumbents.

On Tuesday, the board appointed former Trustee Michael Najera to fill the remainder of Garcia’s term, which expires in May 2023. Najera lost his re-election bid for the at-large seat in 2019, which he had held since 2009.

Only Cindy Najera, Gandara, Guerra and Rodriguez were present for Tuesday’s vote. Mena and Morales were absent.

Espinoza came to SISD from the Houston Independent School District, where he was a school improvement officer and middle school principal.

He oversaw SISD’s rapid growth and the opening of five elementary schools, a middle and a high school. In 2019, SISD became the first large El Paso County district to earn an “A” grade in the state academic accountability ratings, which are largely based on student performance on state standardized tests.

His departure leaves El Paso County’s two largest districts without a permanent superintendent heading into the 2021-22 school year, when tens of thousands of students are expected to return to classrooms for the first time since March 2020.

The El Paso ISD Board of Trustees is in the initial phase of its search for Juan Cabrera’s replacement. Vince Sheffield, deputy superintendent of administration and academics, has been serving as interim since Cabrera’s November 2020 resignation.

Cabrera received $558,917 as part of his resignation agreement.

Espinoza said he had no plan to apply for the vacant EPISD post, saying he and his family were ready to return to Houston.

Cover photo: Socorro Independent School District Superintendent José Espinoza congratulated a student at the opening of the Pebble Hills Early College campus in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Socorro ISD)

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.