The Socorro school board voted late Tuesday to fire the district police chief of five years, siding with the superintendent’s recommendation to terminate the chief’s contract for “good cause.”

The 4-2 vote came after the board discussed Jose Castorena’s termination behind closed doors for more than an hour Tuesday evening. None of the trustees moved to discuss the matter in open session before casting their votes. Castorena was not at the meeting.

Trustees Eddie Mena, David Morales, Ricardo Castellano and Pablo Barrera approved the proposed contract termination made by Superintendent Nate Carman. Trustees Cindy Najera and Paul Guerra voted against it. Trustee Michael Najera, who frequently sides with the minority faction of Cindy Najera and Guerra, was absent.

Carman declined to discuss the reasons behind the termination when approached by media following the vote. “I won’t speak to any ongoing personnel matter,” he said.

In an Aug. 9 letter notifying the chief of the proposed contract termination, Carman wrote that Castorena had violated district policies, namely that the chief failed to perform his duties and that he put students at risk of danger. “… you directly permitted campuses to go without a police presence in violation of my directive” that “no campus was left without a police officer” in the wake of the Uvalde, Texas school shooting on May 24, the superintendent wrote.

Carman placed Castorena on paid leave on May 31, four school days after the shooting.

Castorena told El Paso Matters that he believed his contract termination was retaliation for his involvement with a Texas Rangers’ investigation “with regards to some of the members of the board.” He said the concern that led to the investigation was brought to him prior to Carman’s hiring.

Trustee Castellano has been under investigation for allegations of official oppression since early March, according to Texas Department of Public Safety documents El Paso Matters obtained via an open records request.

From left, SISD Trustee Ricardo Castellano, Trustee Paul Guerra and Superintendent Nate Carman, listen as student recognitions are read at the start of Tuesday’s board meeting. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Castorena called the superintendent’s outlined reasons for his termination “without basis.”

In response to Carman’s point on school security, Castorena said SISD’s police department size made it difficult to permanently staff all 50 campuses.

The police department has 59 employees, according to district spokesperson Daniel Escobar (that number includes Castorena). There are currently 23 department vacancies.

Carman also cited in his letter the department’s high absence rate during the two months prior to the Uvalde shooting and the lack of an “effective contingency plan when dealing with officer absences and securing the safety of campuses during their absence.”

He denied Castorena’s allegation that his termination recommendation was a form of retaliation, calling it “untrue” in a written statement to El Paso Matters.

Lt. George Johnson has been leading the department since Castorena was placed on leave. 

“The second-in-command, Lt. Johnson, has done an excellent job with the scheduling of our personnel to make sure that our campuses are adequately covered since day one of this school year and to ensure that we have an officer at each of our campuses,” Carman told the media.

Socorro ISD police officers provide security during the Board of Trustees meeting on Tuesday. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Castorena, who was hired in 2017, was the SISD Police Department’s fourth chief. His salary is about $112,100, according to information provided by the district. His contract was set to end in June 2023, the end of the current fiscal year, and the termination does not come with a severance package.

Castorena has 15 days to decide whether to appeal the board’s termination decision and to request a hearing before the board. Castorena told El Paso Matters he intends to appeal it, but doesn’t anticipate it being granted.

Carman said after the board meeting that the hiring process for the new, permanent chief will be open to both internal and external applicants: “We will post the position and hire the best candidate that applies and that meets our qualifications.”

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.