As El Paso’s largest school district gets set to welcome a new superintendent, it does so with a renewed authority that allows trustees to override the district leader’s hiring decisions.

The El Paso Independent School District Board of Trustees voted 5-2 last month to return final hiring authority for leadership positions and high school principals to the board. That authority had rested solely with the superintendent since the 2013 hiring of Juan Cabrera, who previously made those decisions without getting board approval.

The policy change is being greeted by some board members as a means to improve transparency, but one longtime trustee called it “micromanaging 101.”

Incoming Superintendent Diana Sayavedra’s first day is Jan. 4 and the new policy gives trustees final approval over some key open positions, including her chief of staff and communications director.

“As we go through this period of transitioning into a new superintendent, with such key positions open and vacant, we just want to ensure that it’s (the hiring process) at the utmost level of integrity,” Trustee Israel Irrobali said ahead of the Nov. 16 vote. Irrobali and Trustee Leah Hanany proposed the policy revision. Both were elected just last summer.

But Al Velarde, the most senior trustee who has been on the board since 2015, questioned the need for the change. He and Isabel Hernandez, who joined this summer, voted against it.

“The CEO (the superintendent) has full responsibility for all operations and when you try to mix the board into that, I fear you’re going to interject politics into these decisions,” Velarde said. ”You’re going to interject confusion, you’re also going to interject a lack of trust to the superintendent.”

Per the revised employment policy, the superintendent must bring final hiring recommendations for top-level positions — such as department director and executive director, associate and assistant superintendent and district legal counsel — as well as high school principals, to the board for approval. If the board does not vote to approve the recommendation, the superintendent must come back with a new one.

Trustees also revised a separate policy to now require the superintendent to bring current employee assignments and reassignments for the same positions to the board for “its review and input.” The superintendent, however, retains final decision-making authority.

EPISD Board of Trustees President Al Velarde, right, introduces Diana Sayavedra as the new superintendent after she signed her contract Dec. 8. (Molly Smith/El Paso)

Many Texas school boards retain some authority for certain hires, said Joy Baskin, legal services director for the Texas Association of School Boards. The Texas Education Code provides a check against board micromanagement, she said, in that only the superintendent can recommend an individual to be hired.

“The board itself can’t go out looking for candidates,” Baskin said. TASB recommends against trustees participating in the interview process.

It’s rare for boards to decline a superintendent’s recommendation, Baskin said. The board might do that if they believe the individual doesn’t meet the qualifications or if they believe a vacancy has not been publicized broadly enough.

Cynthia Najera, who has served as a Socorro ISD trustee since 2010, agreed it’s rare for trustees to reject a superintendent’s recommendations. SISD’s board retains hiring authority for administrative positions, which includes assistant principals within the district.

“When a superintendent chooses someone, that is their team,” Najera said. “We truly believe that because we (trustees) do not go into the schools, we do not watch them teach or lead. That’s not the school board’s job.”

Hanany said the change brings EPISD in line with other El Paso districts, like Socorro and Canutillo, which have similar policies.

Though Ysleta ISD delegates final hiring authority to the superintendent, the superintendent must submit “the names and qualifications” of executive-level and high school principal finalists to trustees for their “review and input.”

“It’s nice to be able to liaise with the superintendent on these really key hires,” Hanany said in an interview after the vote. “The intent is not for us to lead the hiring process, the intent is for us to have a leaver of accountability.”

“I think checks and balances are healthy, which is why most boards retain that authority,” she added.

Velarde, however, didn’t see the need for EPISD to follow suit because EPISD, which educates nearly 51,000 students, is larger than other area districts.

“In a big district like us with numerous high schools, trustees are never going to know everybody within (the district),” he said. That’s something that could be more realistic in a 6,000-student district like Canutillo, he added.

He said he’s unaware of complaints regarding high-level hires under the previous superintendent. He also expressed concern this will delay the hiring process because new hires now must come before the board during its monthly meeting, unless the board convenes for a special meeting.

Of Texas’ 10 largest districts, five do not give sole authority to the superintendent for hires: Houston, Dallas, Cypress-Fairbanks, Austin and Aldine.

At Fort Bend ISD, where Sayavedra served as deputy superintendent for four years, the board retains final authority for high school principal and district administrator hires. But unlike EPISD’s revised reassignment policy, the superintendent does not need to bring assignment or transfer decisions to the board for input.

Sayavedra could not be reached for comment about EPISD’s recent policy revisions.

Hanany said she could not say whether trustees had raised the changes with Sayavedra during her finalist interview or during contract negotiations because that happened in closed session.

“We are excited about building a team of eight with her and discussing our vision and goals for the district in general with her,” Hanany said.

Cover photo: The EPISD Board of Trustees on Dec. 8. (Corrie Boudreaux)

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.