Ten candidates are seeking to fill three seats on the seven-member Canutillo Independent School District Board of Trustees this November, an election that comes at a pivotal time for the growing district.

New homes are popping up, and within the next few years, the district expects enrollment to rise by almost 1,000 students — a sixth of its current population. It’s again asking voters to approve millions in bond debt in November to renovate aging campuses, after a similar measure failed last fall.

As it grows, Canutillo has not been immune from the culture wars that have taken over suburban boardrooms across Texas, with parents decrying an LGBTQ-themed library book. The parent who sought the book’s removal in Canutillo is on the ballot, as is a trustee who pushed, unsuccessfully, for the board to vote on its removal.

That trustee, Laure Searls, is seeking her fourth consecutive term, having first been elected in 1994. The other incumbent on the ballot is Salvador Payan, who is in his first term.

The eight challengers are all first-time candidates who cite various motivations for running for the Board of Trustees. Among them are two longtime Socorro Independent School District administrators, a college student hoping to become the youngest elected trustee in district history and the brother of a sitting trustee.

Trustees play an oversight role. They set policies and goals for the district, which the superintendent and administrators then implement. Trustees are also tasked with adopting the annual budget and evaluating the superintendent, who they have the power to fire and hire.

Canutillo trustees are elected at-large, meaning they represent the entire district rather than a specific area. Voters can select up to three candidates when they cast their ballot. The district uses plurality voting so the three candidates with the most votes will each win a four-year term.

Canutillo connections

Bobby Simental

Bobby Simental said his brother, Trustee Sergio Coronado, had no influence on his decision to run for a school board seat. Simental said it’s a position he’s long considered given his desire to serve the community where he’s spent most of his life and the district from which he and his son graduated. “I want to make sure that everybody from there does well,” he said.

A longtime permanent resident, Simental, 55, became a U.S. citizen last year — making him eligible to run for the board. He works as a private investigator for an immigration attorney. Previously, he was chief deputy for the El Paso County District Clerk’s Office.

There is nothing that precludes relatives from serving on a school board at the same time. Coronado’s term doesn’t end until 2024, but he’ll have to vacate it by year’s end if elected El Paso County Commissioner Precinct 4 in November.

Were they to serve together, Simental said he would be an independent vote from his brother: “We have different thoughts on politics. … We think alike in some ways and we don’t in other ways.”

Though not running as a slate, Simental, Payan and Cindy Carrillo and Lucy Borrego are helping each other with their campaigns.

Cindy Carrillo

Carrillo, 40, helps manage her parents’ restaurant, Tamales Lupita, and cited wanting “to make a difference in the community” as her primary reason for seeking a school board seat. One change she’d like to see is more after-school programming, such as intramural sports.

Carrillo said she’d bring the perspective of a current parent to the board, as only one sitting trustee has a child enrolled in the district. She has a child who attends Alderete Middle School and another in Deanna Davenport Elementary School.

Both Simental and Carrillo have been sued over unpaid taxes. The city of El Paso Tax Office sued Simental and Coronado this September to collect $4,646 in taxes on a property their father transferred to them. Simental said he’s in the process of paying the overdue bill; tax office records do not indicate any recent payments.

The state sued Carrillo in 2018 over an undisclosed amount of unpaid sales tax over a six-month period in 2017. The suit was dismissed, according to court records, after she “complied (with) tax assessor office.”

Simental and Carrillo reported raising $3,650 and $3,150, respectively, during the latest campaign finance reporting period covering July 1 through Sept. 29. Their donors were identical, with Simental receiving $2,000 and Carillo getting $1,500 from the El Paso Association of Contractors, and Tropicana Homes co-owner Randall Bowling giving each $1,000.

Longtime administrators seek trustee role

Lucy Borrego

Lucy Borrego, 52, originally envisioned running for school board after she retired from her position as chief academic officer of the Socorro Independent School District. But with retirement still a few years away, she decided to file for a spot on the ballot because she felt the district’s students couldn’t wait.

“The school board is the most important board anybody can ever run for because it’s decisions made on our kids’ lives,” Borrego said. “I think that many times adults forget that in the educational system — public schools — every decision should be based on what’s best for kids. And we lose that, unfortunately, with politics.”

Borrego is campaigning on her nearly three decades in education, having worked her way from teaching in the classroom, to overseeing a campus as a principal, to a top academic leadership position.

“I know what’s going on and I know what’s happening in the world of education so I want to make sure that I’m making a difference at the top level where it matters in so many ways,” she said.

The bulk of her career has been spent in Socorro ISD, which gives her insight into overseeing a growing district. Using data in decision-making is key, she said, especially as the district determines where to build or expand campuses.

Borrego reported raising $6,400. Her top donors were “SC Martin/PV Martin” who gave $2,500, the El Paso Association of Contractors who gave $1,000 and Randall Bowling who gave $1,000.

Tony Reza

Also on the ballot is former Socorro ISD Chief Financial Officer Tony Reza, 61, who stepped down this summer after 13 years in the role. Reza is working in SISD’s purchasing department until he officially retires in December. Previously, he was Canutillo ISD’s chief financial officer for a decade.

Reza said he’s long wanted to run for school board upon retirement. “I strongly believe that this is a noble cause,” he said, adding that the board needs trustees who are committed to ensuring that the community has access to quality public education.

The expertise he’d bring to the board wouldn’t solely be limited to school finance, he said, but includes knowledge of state and local policies that govern districts and historical perspective on area districts.

“I’ve seen certain things and certainly I can provide that history knowledge as recommendations to the whole board,” he said.

Reza did not raise any money but reported spending almost $700 of his own money on signs and mailers.

Push for ‘parental rights’ inspires bids

Candidates Breanne Barnes, Andres “Andy” Gomez and Salvador Gonzalez aren’t running as a slate, but Barnes said they are helping each other given their similar platforms focused on parental rights and increased transparency around district financial decisions.

Breanne Barnes

Barnes, 35, was an elementary school teacher in Canutillo until she resigned in September 2021 as a result of her dissatisfaction with the district’s COVID-19 quarantine policies for unvaccinated staff. She subsequently pulled her child out of the district and enrolled her in their church’s school.

Barnes was motivated to run by her belief that parents are routinely ignored by the district when they express concerns about policies, protocols or curriculum. “A kid is always their parents’ before they are the schools and I think sometimes that’s being overlooked and parental rights need to be acknowledged,” she said.

Parents should have the right to review all material their children are taught, including material shared by guest speakers or during after-school programs, she said. They should also be able to opt their children out of participating in learning activities that are not based on the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, the state’s grade-level learning standards, she said.

Calls for increased parental rights have fueled conservative-led efforts to ban books in districts across the country. Barnes unsuccessfully sought for the illustrated novel “Gender Queer: A Memoir” to be removed from Canutillo High School’s library. The book has drawn conservative ire for what challengers allege is its “pornographic” content in its depiction of the author’s journey to identifying as nonbinary and asexual.

Barnes — whose campaign slogan is “No Politics, Just Our Kids!” — denied that her book challenge was politically motivated; rather, she said, she was ensuring that the district followed state law and does not expose children to pornography.

Andy Gomez

Gomez, 40, agreed that parents need to have more knowledge of school curriculum. The Holiday Inn maintenance supervisor has two children at Alderete Middle School and said he wants to “bring my parent’s voice to my community.” Though he said parents are concerned about the material being taught to their students, he said he doesn’t currently have concerns about curriculum.

Barnes and Gomez were the only candidates interviewed by El Paso Matters who opposed the $264.1 million bond the board voted to place on the November ballot. Both said the cost is too high and that it includes too many “wants” versus actual “needs.” The district last passed a bond in 2011 and the administration has said all of the proposed projects are needed.

Gonzalez, 46, did not return multiple interview requests.

Barnes raised $1,995, according to her campaign finance report. Almost half of that came from Jami Stewart, owner of FoxDen Decor, where Barnes works.

Gomez and Gonzalez did not file campaign finance reports, as required by state law regardless of whether a candidate raises any money.

Alum looks to make election history

Jess Salgado-Ramos

Jess Salgado-Ramos, 19, is looking to become the youngest elected trustee in Canutillo history. The New Mexico State University student graduated from Northwest Early College High School in 2021. It was during high school that he first started regularly attending board meetings to voice concerns. Since graduation, he’s sat on various district-level committees.

“Many of these trustees see their responsibility as just showing up to their monthly board meeting,” Salgado-Ramos said. To him, it’s a position ripe for “advocacy,” such as working with state lawmakers to push for higher teacher salaries and more state funding for schools. He said many teachers are backing his campaign.

As a recent graduate, he said he has insight on the needs of current students: “I can tell you where the district was amazing to me … but then I can also tell you where the district failed me and where I think we can improve.”

Salgado-Ramos reported raising $888. His largest donation of $300 came from former El Paso state Sen. José Rodríguez.

Incumbents seek another four years

Salvador Payan

Salvador Payan, 76, was first elected to the board in 2018. “Primarily my desire to be there again is to continue the good work that the administration is doing and supporting them,” he said.

Payan retired from the Federal Bureau of Prisons and then worked as deputy chief of staff to former El Paso congressman Silvestre Reyes. His goal as a trustee, he said, is to ensure that students have the facilities, the curriculum and the teachers they need to be successful when they graduate. For him, that often means trusting the administration’s recommendations.

“I can’t believe that we hire principals and teachers and administrators — professionals that have worked for their degrees — and we question everything that they do because we don’t see eye to eye with them?” he said.

Payan did not raise any money for his campaign but reported spending $670 of his own money on signs.

Laure Searls, 65, did not return requests for an interview. She was first elected in 1994 and has been re-elected three times since November 2010.

She was absent when the board voted in August to place the bond election on the ballot.

Searls did not file a campaign finance report.

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.