Editor’s note: The Board of Trustees on Tuesday voted 4-2 to terminate Jose Castorena’s contract. Click here to read about that vote.
The Socorro school board may fire the district’s police chief on Tuesday evening at the superintendent’s request.
The action comes more than two months after Socorro Independent School District Superintendent Nate Carman placed Chief Jose Castorena on paid administrative leave on May 31. At that time, the district declined to provide the reason the chief was on leave, stating that it does not comment on personnel matters.
Castorena, in his first public comments since being put on leave, characterized his potential termination as retaliation for his involvement with a Texas Rangers investigation into a sitting school board member.
“The true motivation, in my opinion, is the pending investigation with the Rangers with regards to some of the members of the board,” Castorena told El Paso Matters. The concern that led to the investigation was brought “to me during the interim superintendent’s time in office,” he said.
The Rangers, the investigative arm of the Texas Department of Public Safety, opened an investigation into Trustee Ricardo Castellano for allegations of official oppression in early March. They are also investigating his wife, who is a teacher in the SISD, for allegations of stalking.
Castellano previously told El Paso Matters that he could not comment on the investigation, but his attorney, in a statement, said Ricardo and Gabriela Castellano “look forward to clearing their names.”
Carman, in an email response to written questions, said the assertion that his recommendation to fire the chief is retaliation for the pending investigation, “is untrue.” “That said, it is a personnel matter which cannot be discussed.”
Superintendent: Chief showed ‘incompetency and inefficiency’
The superintendent notified Castorena of his intent to recommend his termination to trustees at Tuesday’s board meeting in an Aug. 9 certified letter, which lists a number of board policies that the chief allegedly violated regarding student security at school and the performance of his duties as chief. Board policies are written guidelines that the board of trustees has adopted under which the district operates.
In a letter, Carman wrote, a review of the chief’s performance found “incompetency and inefficiency in the performance of duties,” “behavior that presented a danger of physical harm to students” and “insubordination or failure to comply with official directives.”
Specifically, the superintendent charges Castorena with failing to “implement an immediate deployment of officers to every campus” on May 24, the day of the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, and “to have them remain there each day through the end of this school year.”
“You were directed to make sure no campus was left without a police officer,” the letter reads. “The District’s investigation revealed that you did not do so.”
The superintendent also highlighted an “excessively high” level of absenteeism among the police department’s staff, noting that in the two months before May 24, it had 670 recorded absences. The department “lacked an effective contingency plan when dealing with officer absences and securing the safety of campuses during their absence,” the letter reads.
SISD’s police department currently has 59 employees, including the chief, according to district spokesperson Daniel Escobar. As of this school year, SISD has 50 campuses.
The department has typically assigned officers to have a constant presence at the middle and high schools, Castorena said.
Chief: Termination is ‘without basis’
Castorena said the stated reasons for his proposed termination “are without basis.”
“I always had the kids’ safety in mind,” he said. “None of the things that we accomplished during my tenure would ever fail or place someone in jeopardy.”
Castorena was named chief in 2017. At that time, he’d been with the district for 26 years, mostly serving in the police department, but also for a stint as transportation coordinator.
The chief reports directly to the superintendent, according to the district’s organizational chart.
In a six-page response to Carman’s letter dated Aug. 11, Castorena accused the superintendent of interfering in the Texas Rangers’ investigation. He alleges that Carman “issued a directive to cease our joint investigation with the Texas Rangers” around early April.
On May 31, the day he was put on leave, Castorena alleges that Carman ordered him, a school district police detective and a district police officer not to meet with El Paso County Attorney’s Office personnel to discuss the investigation.
Asked about both of these allegations, Carman, in a written response said: “A directive was given to ensure district police only serve as a liaison to the Texas Rangers in the matter, not involve the department directly in the investigation which aligns with the fact that the concern had already been reported to the Texas Rangers. Regarding the meeting with the El Paso County Attorney’s Office, a directive was given to reschedule so officers were not pulled from campuses during the last week of school.”
The superintendent provided El Paso Matters with an email he sent First Assistant County Attorney Edward Sosa on May 31 informing Sosa that officers would not be available to meet to discuss the investigations during regular school hours to ensure “we have complete coverage throughout the entire school day at all our campuses.” “Please schedule this meeting outside of our operational hours or after our last day of instruction which is this Thursday, June 2nd,” the email read.
Castorena maintains in his response that he worked with Socorro, Horizon and El Paso police, as well as the sheriff’s office, to have “officers from their agencies in and around our schools” on May 24, in response to the Uvalde shooting.
He also wrote that he and Carman, who trustees hired in mid-March, “briefly discussed re-organizing current (police) personnel in April.” Certain positions, he wrote, cannot be assigned to strictly one campus during the school day. A K-9 officer, for example, he wrote, visits multiple campuses daily “to ensure the possibility of narcotics in our schools is deterred,” while detectives cannot “conduct effective investigations from an assigned campus.”
The chief noted that absences related to training, sick leave or bereavement leave “can add up significantly” and that “SISD does not have a mechanism currently in place to cover absences for peace officers,” such as a reserve program.
Castorena told El Paso Matters that many of these absences were due to people being sick with COVID or officers using their accrued compensatory time. His budget, he said, only allowed for up to $40,000 if overtime costs, which he said is “not a lot” for a 59-person department.
This rate of absences is fairly normal for that time of year, he said.
Trustees set police budget
A district’s police department budget is largely set by the superintendent, the chief financial officer, and budget and finance staff. The board of trustees gives final approval to the annual budget.
Castorena told El Paso Matters that the previous superintendent and board had approved hiring 24 additional officers in the wake of the Aug. 3, 2019, mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart. That would have enabled the police department to assign an officer to all of the elementary campuses, he said.
Ultimately, 14 new officers were hired, he said, before the administration put the hiring plan for the remaining 10 officers on hold on account of the pandemic.
Since Castorena has been on leave, the SISD Board of Trustees has approved the hire of seven additional police officers. These positions were part of the 2022-23 budget that trustees adopted in June.
On Aug. 2, the board approved amending the budget to allocate up to about $412,200 for the purchase of 10 police vehicles to replace current vehicles.
A majority of the seven-member board must approve the superintendent’s recommendation to terminate the police chief’s contract for it to take effect.
If the board decides to terminate him, the chief could appeal, which he said he plans to do. However, he said he’s not optimistic the board would grant the appeal and reinstate him.