El Paso Independent School District Trustee Leah Hannany, left, works for Darryl Henson, right, at the Marlin Independent School District. Hannany has participated in EPISD's superintendent search, which produced Henson as a finalist.

An El Paso Independent School District trustee was hired earlier this year by a Central Texas superintendent who is now a finalist for the EPISD superintendent’s job.

Trustee Leah Hanany does communications for the Marlin Independent School District outside Waco, Texas, whose superintendent, Darryl Henson, was identified as one of four finalists by KTSM. The station didn’t identify its source for the finalists; no one has questioned the list’s authenticity.

Hanany is listed as district communications coordinator on Marlin ISD’s website. That position is part of Henson’s executive cabinet of top administrators. She is listed under her maiden name, Leah Wayne, which she also uses for her LinkedIn profile.

“Because I have an NDA, I can’t make any comments,” Hanany said Thursday, referring to the non-disclosure agreement all seven trustees signed soon after hiring Walsh Gallegos Treviño Kyle & Robinson P.C. to lead the superintendent search. That firm primarily handles school law cases, and it had never run a superintendent search for a district as large as EPISD.

Late Friday, Hanany, through her attorney Stephanie Townsend Allala, put out a statement that read, in part: “I am limited in what I can say because I am honoring my duties as a trustee to maintain confidentiality. I can tell you that it is not uncommon for an applicant to a job to have a connection with a trustee — especially a trustee who is a professional in the field of education.

“The fact of a connection between an applicant and a trustee is not a bad thing. What matters is that the connection to the applicant is disclosed, and that protocols and procedures are instituted to avoid even the appearance of a conflict. The facts of those procedures are confidential. Be assured that any time an applicant has a connection to a trustee, those procedures are followed with the close guidance and advice from attorneys hired by the district,” the statement continued.

Henson has not responded to an emailed request for comment.

EPISD Trustee Leah Hanany speaks to community members at a public meeting on EPISD’s superintendent search at Bowie High School on Oct. 26. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The revelation that a finalist could have a professional relationship with a trustee doesn’t help EPISD’s troubled image, said Rodolfo Rincones, a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Foundations at the University of Texas at El Paso.

“It’s all about the optics” regardless of the legality of the situation, Rincones said. “You want to go through a process where you hire a superintendent that is perceived as legitimate and where everybody got a fair chance to compete for a position.”

In August, the Board of Trustees parted ways with the original search firm, after the firm disclosed that one of its employees’ relatives was interested in the position.

Like Hanany, most trustees cited the NDA when asked about the purported finalist names. Trustees Al Velarde, Daniel Call, Israel Irrobali and Josh Acevedo all said the NDA prevented them from answering any questions. Trustee Isabel Hernandez did not return a request for comment.

Reached Friday, Trustee Freddy Klayel-Avalos said: “I do not understand how that information became public. It was a unanimous decision that we made as a board to sign nondisclosure agreements, which meant that we were not going to supply anybody with information.”

“So it’s concerning to me that those names got out for whatever reason,” he continued. “It undermines the trust that we place on each other as a board and as a team, and it also did a great disservice to the candidates, to the interim superintendent, and it is something that I believe that the board needs to work on so that it does not happen again for any reason.”

Trustees said they wouldn’t reveal any of the 21 applicants’ names, only publicly naming the lone finalist — a common practice among Texas districts intended to protect sitting administrators who aren’t selected. Only the trustees and the search firm would have access to the names of applicants or finalists.

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In her Friday statement, Hanany criticized the leak and raised the possibility that it may have come from a board colleague.

“This week, a member of the Board of Trustees may have violated the confidential applications of people who have applied for the superintendent position,” the statement read. “Unfortunately, applicants may now have been exposed, and, if so, it could create problems for them at their current jobs. That’s why this process requires confidentiality.  I want to express sincere regrets to any applicants whose information may have been illegally exposed.”

The other three finalists KTSM identified are: Matthew Gutierrez, superintendent of Seguin Independent School District; Diana Sayavedra, deputy superintendent of Fort Bend Independent School District; and Jeff Cottrill, deputy commissioner of standards and engagement at the Texas Education Agency.

None are El Paso natives, or longtime El Paso residents, a top ask of community members.

Only Gutierrez and Sayavedra have administrative experience in districts similar in size to EPISD, which has about 51,000 students. 

Gutierrez leads a district of 7,200 students and previously served as assistant superintendent of Plano Independent School District, which has 55,000 students. Sayavedra served as interim superintendent of the 77,000-student Fort Bend ISD from June to September this year and has been a senior administrator there since 2016.

Henson’s district has fewer than 900 students. Before working for TEA, Cottrill was superintendent of Knippa Independent School District, which has fewer than 500 students.

EPISD has been without a permanent superintendent since Juan Cabrera resigned in early November 2020, following news he had been sued in connection with a California charter school scheme. His seven-year tenure was marred by perceived conflicts of interest with other districts and vendors.

Vince Sheffield, a longtime EPISD administrator, has been serving as interim superintendent since last November. It’s unknown whether he applied for the permanent position.

Hanany was hired as Marlin ISD’s communications coordinator on May 17, according to Marlin ISD board meeting notes. She was sworn in as the District 1 Trustee on May 12.

Her trustee biography on EPISD’s website does not mention her employment with Marlin ISD.

Applications for the superintendent position opened Sept. 16 and closed Oct. 28.

When elected to the Board of Trustees in May, Hanany was a career and technology education teacher at Ysleta’s Parkland High School, where Henson was principal from 2015 to 2017, according to his LinkedIn profile.

Darryl Henson signs the contract to be Marlin Independent School District’s superintendent in 2020. (Photo courtesy of Marlin ISD)

Before coming to the Ysleta Independent School District, he briefly served as principal of EPISD’s Bassett Middle School.

The Houston native came to Marlin ISD in May 2020 from Cedar Hill Independent School District in the Dallas area, where he was assistant superintendent of school leadership.

Per state law, trustees are required to file conflict of interest disclosures about their connections, or their immediate families’ connections, to companies that do business with their district.

Hanany’s form, filed Aug. 3, lists no conflicts of interest.

It’s unknown how these rules extend to trustee hiring decisions. Trustees directly hire and evaluate the superintendent, as well as the internal auditor. The Texas Association of School Boards did not make any of its staff available for an interview Friday.

The seven-member Board of Trustees is set to interview the four finalists Monday and could vote on a lone finalist for the position. Whether Thursday’s leak of the finalists’ names will derail that is unknown.

Rincones suggested Hanany recusing herself from that vote would be the most ethical course of action at this point.

“The appearance of all these things is damaging to the process,” he said.

“​​If the community and the board representing the community want to change the perception that people have about EPISD, they need to make things very profound and open. Things like this I don’t think help at all.”

This story has been updated to clarify Hanany’s hire date with Marlin 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.