The El Paso Independent School District named a new superintendent late Monday, despite calls for the school board to suspend its search after names of the finalists were leaked to the press and concerns emerged about a possible conflict of interest between a finalist and board member.

The EPISD Board of Trustees named Diana Sayavedra as the lone finalist for permanent superintendent by a 6-0 vote, with Trustee Leah Hanany abstaining.

Sayavedra is deputy superintendent of Fort Bend Independent School District, a 77,000-student district outside of Houston. She is a Laredo native, who has been a principal in Central Texas and Houston-area schools. She also served as Fort Bend ISD’s chief academic officer.

She will be EPISD’s first permanent woman superintendent in its nearly 140-year history.

“I can’t wait to learn more about the community and connect with the community and work collaboratively with educators, business leaders and the community to move the school district forward,” Sayavedra said following the vote.

The vote came after seven hours of closed-door discussion, which included final candidate interviews.

Days earlier, on Nov. 11, the four finalists’ names were leaked to Channel 9-KTSM. Only the trustees and the search firm had access to applicant names.

The list included Darryl Henson, the superintendent of Marlin Independent School District. Hanany is communications coordinator for the district. Her position there raised concerns about a possible conflict of interest.

The issue led the El Paso Alliance for Just Schools, in addition to a number of Facebook commentators, to call for the board to scrap the search entirely, given the appearance of impropriety and because none of the finalists were El Paso natives or spent significant time here. That candidates have experience in El Paso was the most common request from the community as the board headed into the interview and selection process. The district sought public input in the weeks leading up to the selection.

Diana Sayavedra spoke Monday night after being named sole finalist for the El Paso Independent School District superintendent. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)

Hanany said she could not disclose the reason for her abstention or whether she also abstained from participating in Monday’s final interviews and deliberations. “I can’t comment on the abstention because it might reveal confidential information,” she said.

Still, Hanany said she was excited for Sayavedra to join EPISD and see the district led by a Latina for the first time.

“I think of my grandmother in this situation, who was from Presidio and was discriminated against in her classroom, and who could never even finish grade school because of that discrimination and how hard it was for her to be a Mexican American student in Texas,” Hanany said.

“Hopefully she can bridge some connection (with South Side students) and talk about her experiences as the daughter of immigrants, and really help bridge that to those students who are going to need that compassion,” Hanany said.

EPISD trustees must wait at least 21 days before officially voting to hire Sayavedra, a state-mandated waiting period designed to allow the public time to vet the finalist.

Sayavedra said she intends to start in early January. Between now and then she said she plans to visit El Paso and meet with the EPISD community.

EPISD has been without a permanent superintendent since Juan Cabrera resigned in November 2020 after being sued in connection with a charter school scheme. Vince Sheffield has served as interim for the past year.

The search cost the district approximately $40,000.

YISD trustee: Henson has El Paso homestead exemption

YISD Trustee Shane Haggerty, who represents the Parkland area and was on the school board during Henson’s two-year tenure as Parkland High School principal from 2015 to 2017, expressed support for him, casting him as someone with a connection to the community.

“He owns a house and a homestead exemption in EPISD … He comes out here all the time,” Haggerty said.

Henson purchased a house in Northeast El Paso in 2016, according to El Paso Central Appraisal District records, and has a homestead exemption on the property. That reduced his EPISD property taxes by $410 last year.

Such exemptions, according to the Texas Comptroller’s office, are for houses the owner uses as their “principal residence.”

Ysleta ISD Trustee Shane Haggerty spoke in support of Darryl Henson’s candidacy at Monday’s board meeting. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)

It’s unknown whether Henson or any other candidate withdrew their names from consideration following last week’s leak.

Board President Al Velarde said the board interviewed only three finalists Monday.

Henson told Waco’s KWTX Monday that he “would like to reaffirm my commitment to Marlin ISD” in response to the news that he’d been named a finalist for the EPISD position. Henson has been at Marlin since May 2020.

‘Reconnecting with my roots’

Sayavedra has spent most of her career away from the border but said she is looking forward to returning to a different part of the Texas-Mexico border from where she grew up and “reconnecting with my roots from my youth.”

Asked why she wanted to return to the border, Sayavedra said she felt a responsibility to provide a quality education to Hispanic public school students, like she once was.

“Fifty-three percent of our state (public school student) population is Hispanic. Districts like El Paso and cities where I grew up like Laredo, it’s incumbent on us to make sure that we educate our children in a way that they’re prepared and they can compete anywhere they go,” she said.

“I think if the community gives her a chance, they’re going to realize she’s one of us already,” Trustee Israel Irrobali said. “Her background and her story resonate with our community.”

Though Sayavedra said she didn’t expect her name to be leaked to the press, that didn’t change her feelings about continuing with the process, she said.

Irrobali believes the board can come back from the brief controversy.

“It’s a 6-0 vote with one abstention. What that shows you is there’s unification behind this superintendent,” he said. “And what that means is that under this leadership, in partnership and in tandem, we can move forward and we can look past what’s gone on in the past and say, ‘we’re going to better, we’re going to strive for greatness, and we’re going to be the district of choice moving forward.’”

Cover photo: Diana Sayavedra speaks with media after being names lone finalist for EPISD superintendent Nov. 15. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)

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.