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Community urges EPISD trustees not to repeat previous mistakes in new superintendent hire

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UPDATE 3:50 p.m. Nov. 4: El Paso Independent School District trustees selected seven of the 21 superintendent applicants for first-round interviews to be held Tuesday, Nov. 9. The names of those selected for interviews will not be released. Second-round interviews are scheduled for Monday, Nov. 15. Trustees are expected to name a lone finalist after the second-round interviews.

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An El Paso native. Someone who knows the border. A career educator. Bilingual. Accessible. Ethical.

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Those were the ideal characteristics of a new El Paso Independent School District superintendent, according to community input sessions in recent days. The Board of Trustees has promised to consider the public feedback when they review superintendent applications Tuesday and select who to interview.

The sessions drew parents, teachers, former students and activists who urged trustees not to repeat the mistakes of the past and to instead hire someone who would be a departure from Juan Cabrera, a career attorney who led the district for seven years. Like his predecessor, Cabrera resigned amid allegations of fraud, this time tied to an online charter school he helped launch.

“It seems to me that we need a real shift in paradigm in terms of finding somebody to lead the district,” said Luis Salazar, a parent at Austin High School’s forum.

“What we need is somebody … who’s got skin in the game, somebody who at the end of the day, when they do something bad, they’ve got something to lose here because they came up through our city,” Salazar said. “They’ve got friends, family (here); maybe their kids are part of the district.”

Salazar was not alone in wanting trustees to hire someone with ties to El Paso. Trustees should consider candidates who are current administrators in EPISD or a neighboring district, or who grew up here but left for career opportunities elsewhere, attendees said.

Board President Al Velarde agreed. But it’s important trustees select the most qualified person to manage the 50,000-student district, he told a dozen people gathered in Silva Health Magnet High School’s auditorium. “I would love to select somebody from El Paso, but if I do, I want to make sure that person can be competitive anywhere in the nation,” he said.

EPISD last hired an internal candidate in 2002. The last two superintendents, Lorenzo García and Cabrera, were brought in from Dallas and the Austin area. Both left amid scandal, with García pleading guilty to federal fraud charges in 2012. He served 2½ years in prison.

Parents and community members attend a meeting at Bowie High School on Oct. 26 to discuss EPISD’s superintendent search. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

‘Collective trauma from what’s happened’

Parents and teachers were resolute that they want this cycle of scandals to end for the region’s largest district.

“It’s really sad that we have to say (we want) somebody with integrity, somebody with ethics, somebody that’s transparent. We shouldn’t have to say that — that’s what leadership should be doing,” Trustee Josh Acevedo said at the Austin High School forum. “But I think we all as a community have that collective trauma from what’s happened with the past two superintendents.”

At sessions across the district, the discussion often turned to the contract that will be offered to the person trustees ultimately select for the job. Many were firm on one thing: external consulting should not be permitted, as it was for Cabrera, who unbeknownst to the board, spent hours on outside projects.

Trustees will review candidate applications Tuesday as the search process enters the final stretch. They received 21 applications, according to Velarde.

EPISD Trustee Josh Acevedo listens to public comments during a meeting on the district’s superintendent search at Bowie High School on Oct. 26. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The first round of interviews will take place Nov. 8-10, with second interviews scheduled for Nov. 15-16. If satisfied with the pool of applicants, trustees could choose a lone finalist that week.

Texas districts must wait at least 21 days between naming a superintendent finalist and offering that person a contract — a window that allows for public vetting of the proposed hire before the contract is finalized.

Trustees would like the new superintendent to start in early January. If they hire a sitting superintendent at another district, that person may be contractually obligated to finish the school year before coming to EPISD, Velarde said.

‘Real possibility to go through a real change’

Hiring someone who is dedicated to tackling EPISD’s long-standing inequities was especially important for community members from South-Central El Paso. Students at schools in the Bowie and Jefferson High School feeder patterns have long performed at lower levels on state-standardized exams than their peers from West Side schools.

Those schools need “equitable staffing and resourcing,” said Silva world history teacher Aaron Waggoner, a member of the El Paso Alliance for Just Schools, a community group that advocates for equitable public schools.

“I think that EPISD has a real possibility to go through a real change,” said parent Hilda Villegas, a Bowie alumna and founder of Familias Unidas del Chamizal, a women-led community group.

For Villegas, that change would best come by hiring a Mexican-American woman who is bilingual in Spanish and English and understands the needs of the city’s immigrant community.

A member of Familias Unidas del Chamizal speaks to EPISD Trustee Leah Hanany during a public meeting on the district’s superintendent search at Bowie High School on Oct. 26. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

EPISD, El Paso’s oldest district, has never had a permanent woman superintendent. 

Trustee Leah Hanany, who represents El Paso and Bowie High Schools, said finding a superintendent who can turn around EPISD’s lowest performing schools is a priority.

“As I talk to community members, you can see how the glaring discrepancy between our low performing and our high performing schools really affects the entire area,” Hanany said. “It affects all of those families, not just the students.”

She’ll bring that perspective to the table when the seven trustees decide which applicants to interview. Though each may come with a different feel for what their feeder communities are looking for, Hanany said all seven agree on one thing: “We definitely want to get it right.”

Cover photo: Katherine Villegas, an El Paso Independent School District alumna, speaks during a meeting on the district’s superintendent search at Bowie High School on Oct. 26. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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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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