When Socorro trustees last selected a superintendent in 2012, they took an uncommon approach and announced three finalists who were put through public interviews.

Now, a decade later, the school board is poised to take the more conventional approach among Texas districts of naming a sole finalist. Unlike states like Nevada and Colorado, Texas law does not require districts to release the names of all finalists.

The Socorro Independent School District has been without a permanent superintendent since José Espinoza resigned in early May. Internal auditor Marta Carmona is serving as interim superintendent.

An open search would “diminish the depth of the (applicant) talent pool,” James Guerra told trustees at the Dec. 14 board meeting. Guerra, whose Austin-based firm JG Consulting is leading the search for SISD’s new leader, recommended against repeating 2012’s selection process.

“The magic for us is to recruit successful sitting superintendents who aren’t looking for a job,” Guerra said.

Current superintendents would be reluctant to apply if they knew their names would be released, as that could jeopardize their standing with their current school board, he said. An open search would drop the applicant pool from 50 to 20 people, he estimated.

Socorro trustees followed his recommendation and unanimously approved a job posting that says interviews will be conducted behind closed doors with only board members and that only a lone finalist will be named.

The firm will collect applications through Jan. 13, which the board will receive at its Jan. 18 meeting.

The board could name a lone finalist by February, Guerra told El Paso Matters. And if all goes well, the new superintendent could be in Socorro by March.

Career educator wanted

The job posting calls for a career educator with administrative experience who “is committed to serving the district and community for the long term.” Guerra told trustees the SISD community would prefer someone who is bilingual and has experience working in a district or region that has similar demographics to Socorro.

That feedback largely came from small group discussions JG Consulting organized with trustees, principals and staff, teachers union members and students. Local officials, including Precinct 3 County Commissioner Iliana Holguin, who represents the Lower Valley, and members of the Socorro City Council, also took part. The firm additionally solicited input through online surveys, which remain open.

Socorro High School’s cafeteria was empty after preparing to host a community forum on Socorro ISD’s superintendent search. Only two community members arrived to meet with the firm in charge of the search. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The three community forums the firm held earlier this month drew only three people, and only two trustees were present: Paul Guerra and Cynthia Najera. (James Guerra and Paul Guerra are not related.)

Such low turnout isn’t unusual during the pandemic and in the run-up to winter break, James Guerra said. He said he doesn’t read anything into the lack of public feedback, and considers the more than 600 survey responses a success.

The search consultant said his main takeaway from the survey responses and group meetings is that “there’s no sense of complacency. It’s such a high-performing district … but no one is satisfied.”

“There’s this notion that there’s still much more we can do,” he said. The community isn’t looking for someone to come in and revamp district practices that are working, but rather a collaborative leader who will bring fresh ideas and initiatives, he said.

Omar Chavira, a Socorro High School alum, was one of two people at the Dec. 7 forum at the school. The new superintendent must be able to manage the community’s growth, he said.

SISD is El Paso’s only large growing district, though its student population growth is starting to slow.

During his nine-year tenure, Espinoza oversaw the opening of five elementary schools, a middle school and a high school, while his peers in the El Paso and Ysleta independent school districts navigated school closures and consolidations due to declining enrollment.

“It would be neat to see an El Pasoan (hired), but you also want the best person for the job no matter where they’re from,” Chavira said.

Omar Chavira, a Socorro High School alum and current resident of the area, said he would prefer an El Pasoan as the next superintendent. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Finalist process not set in stone

Trustee Cynthia Najera, who has been on the school board since 2010, was most vocal about her desire to have the top finalists go through community interviews before trustees make a final decision.

“That was an extremely valuable tool to hear how this candidate related to each of our different community members, whether it was parents, or staff or students,” she told James Guerra at the Dec. 14 meeting.

“I am absolutely positive, without question, it made a big difference in our last search,” said Trustee Michael Najera, who was also part of the board who hired Espinoza.

Trustees David Morales and Ricardo Castellano, however, said they did not want to jeopardize limiting the candidate pool by publicly naming multiple finalists.

“We’ve hired your firm to help guide us and we have to trust your judgement and your experience and we do know that you have a great track record,” Morales said.

Trustee Paul Guerra, who was on the board in 2012, told El Paso Matters that though he sees the benefits of open interviews, he agrees trustees should heed the firm’s guidance.

SISD Trustee Paul Guerra at Dec. 7’s sparsely attended community forum on the hiring of a new superintendent. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Trustee Eddie Morales said he is undecided because he values community involvement but also wants “to capture the most qualified people nationally” for the position.

Trustee Pablo Barrera did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Though the job description says the board will only name one finalist, trustees could decide to change course as the process moves along and do something similar to what happened in 2012, SISD legal counsel Steve Blanco indicated. A candidate who does not want to be publicly identified could decide to withdraw their name from consideration.

James Guerra said his firm has never conducted a Texas search in which a district announced multiple finalists, but said he will ultimately do what the board decides.

Cover photo: Only two community members attended SISD’s community forum on the hiring of a new superintendent at Socorro High School on Dec. 7. (Corrie Boudreaux/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.