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Education Election Featured

El Paso ISD District 5 runoff features candidates backed by different interest groups

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Northeast El Paso residents have a second opportunity to vote for their representative for the District 5 seat on the El Paso Independent School District Board of Trustees.

Candidates Cordia “Vanessa” Betts and Israel Irrobali will face off in the June 5 runoff to replace Chuck Taylor, who did not seek a third term. Irrobali was just shy of winning the seat outright in the May 1 election after garnering nearly 48% of the vote compared to Betts’ 17% — a 442-vote difference.

Early voting starts Monday and continues through June 1.

The winner will be one of three new members that reshape the demographics and experience of the seven-member board that oversees El Paso County’s oldest and largest district. The district represents the Andress High School feeder pattern; each term on the school board runs four years.

Vanessa Betts

Betts, 63, was one of a record five Black candidates who ran for either the District 4 or 5 seats in Northeast El Paso. If elected, she would be the only Black trustee on EPISD’s board.

While trustees “should look like the people they represent,” voters should elect the person they believe is most qualified for the position, Betts said. 

“I don’t want to be on the board because I’m African-American, but if you see something in me that will benefit the board — and I feel like I can — then of course I would like to be included in that,” she said.

Betts has touted her experience in New Mexico’s public school system, where she spent 10 years managing an elementary school computer lab. She’s also a children’s book author and  describes herself as an advocate for children’s literacy.

She would be the third woman trustee. The EPISD school board has had just a single woman on the seven-member board since May 2019.

If elected, Irrobali, 30, would be the youngest trustee and one of few with government experience. Irrobali, who identifies as Hispanic, works in the city of El Paso’s Economic and International Development Department and is the city’s legislative liaison. He previously worked in the Texas Economic Development and Tourism Office in the governor’s office.

“I’m well aware of how government organizations work,” Irrobali said. “I have great relationships between the county, city and other organizations throughout El Paso just because of the byproduct of my employment and the opportunities I’ve had.”

Partisan politics and special interests

Ross Moore, the president of the El Paso chapter of the American Federation of Teachers — EPISD’s largest employee union — has attacked Irrobali’s work under former El Paso Mayor Dee Margo and Gov. Greg Abbott, both Republicans. School board elections are nonpartisan. 

Israel Irrobali

“I have not talked to Dee Margo about my race,” Irrobali said in response to what he calls “the rumor started by AFT that Dee Margo recruited me to be a minion of his.”

Irrobali said his passion for the Northeast, where he grew up and decided to return after attending college in New York and then living in Austin, influenced his decision to run for elected office.

An Andress alum, he is also an EPISD parent — his son is a seventh grader at Charles Middle School. If elected, he will be one of four trustees with children attending schools in the district.

Irrobali, who briefly worked on Abbott’s campaign for governor in 2014, said he has voted in both Republican and Democratic primaries. Betts has been endorsed by various local Democratic groups.

“I think when we go down this route of partisan affiliation, I think we do our community a disservice,” Irrobali said. “There are many issues in American society, in El Paso society, in Northeast society that transcend politics.”

While Betts has the support of the teachers’ union, Irrobali is backed by a local nonprofit group  that supports charter schools.

Betts has received a total $2,000 from the El Paso AFT chapter, as well as $2,946 in in-kind donations from the Texas chapter, according to campaign finance reports. Irrobali reported $7,816 in in-kind donations from the Kids First political action committee, which is connected to the Council on Regional Economic Expansion and Educational Development, or CREEED.

CREEED has funded charter school expansions in El Paso as a way of boosting the number of high-performing schools that prepare students for college. Financial support is not contingent upon a candidate’s support for charter schools, Kids First’s treasurer previously told El Paso Matters.

Irrobali said he does not support charter schools and wants to improve the quality of education EPISD offers so families don’t leave the district.

“Though as a board trustee I will adamantly fight charter schools coming into my district and coming to EPISD’s area, I also am not going to make my residents, parents and teachers feel like they’re doing something wrong or attack them for going to charter schools because we’re not doing a good enough job at EPISD,” he said.

Both candidates said the campaign contributions will not influence their decisions. 

“The people that are going to influence me are my District 5 residents,” Irrobali said. “That’s who I’m representing.”

Betts has also stressed her independence. 

“Every donation that I have taken, I tell them, I’m not a puppet,” she said. “I’m not going to have any strings attached. I’m going to be approachable. I’m going to consider all the things that people have told me.”

Tasks ahead of the board

Whoever is elected will face two critical tasks: hiring a permanent superintendent and working through the potential fallout of pending internal audits of district contracts.

Irrobali said he became a certified contract manager through his work at the governor’s office, and has experience with state and city audits.

“What I think is frustrating for many residents throughout El Paso is, it’s a normal thing to have an audit, it’s not a normal thing that every time an audit happens, we have a new finding,” he said.

That requires a long-term fix that brings “integrity back into the district,” he said.

Betts pointed to her experience reviewing safehouse placements as a board member for a New Mexico nonprofit that served domestic violence victims.

It will be imperative for trustees to thoroughly research and vet superintendent candidates before making a hiring decision, she said.

Irrobali favors hiring someone willing to sign a contract with a morality or ethics clause. “With an institution like EPISD that is seeing such impropriety and questionable behavior and decision-making, I think that’s something we should require,” he said.

How to learn more

Early voting runs from May 24-June 1.

Betts and Irrobali’s candidate questionnaires can be found in our voters guide.

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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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