Election night felt like déjà vu for the Canutillo Independent School District’s superintendent: For the second time in a year, the two bond proposals on the ballot were failing by margins of more than 20 percentage points.

The proposals, which totaled $264.1 million, would have funded renovations across its 10 campuses and allowed the district of 6,000 students to refinance debt it took out to support remote learning.

Trustee Armando Rodriguez was hopeful that higher voter turnout during the Nov. 8 midterm election would result in a different outcome. Instead, he said, the results revealed “that there’s issues that we have to address.”

Those issues largely center on community distrust of the school board and the administration, misinformation about 2011 bond spending and community disengagement — all things that will take time to fix.

Canutillo ISD Superintendent Pedro Galaviz

Superintendent Pedro Galaviz said he doesn’t view the election results as a referendum on his leadership or a reflection of community dissatisfaction with the district.

“I don’t take it personally,” Galaviz said. “Our track record is three A’s (from the Texas Education Agency) and (being) voted Best Small School District” in 2022’s H-E-B Excellence in Education Awards.

District leadership suspects that not enough voters, particularly those new to Canutillo who may not have school-aged children, are aware of the district’s needs when it comes to modernizing decades-old campuses and renovating buildings to accommodate future enrollment increases. The district anticipates enrollment to climb by about 1,000 students within the next five years as a result of new home construction in the western part of the county.

Parent Rosanna Alderete, who has two elementary-aged children in the district, said she voted against the bond both years because she doesn’t trust the board to manage large sums of money.

“We can’t trust our school board right now and we can’t trust the school district in general,” she said.

Ballot language hampers Texas school bonds

A new state law further complicates efforts to pass a bond, public education leaders say, because it requires school districts to add the sentence, “This is a property tax increase,” to every proposition, regardless of whether it would cause the tax rate to increase.

In contrast, the ballot language for the city of El Paso’s three Nov. 8 bond propositions — all of which passed and are estimated to raise property taxes by $60 annually — included no mention of an increase.

Fewer school bonds have passed since the law took effect in 2020, said Dax Gonzalez, division director of Governmental Relations at the Texas Association of School Boards. Prior to 2020, about 70% of school bonds passed, he said. That’s since dropped to the 50s, which is also a reflection of concerns about the economy.

The most common feedback Canutillo received, spokesperson Gustavo Reveles said, was around “affordability.” The district estimated that at the height of the bond’s 40-year repayment schedule, the tax rate could rise by as much as 3 cents — costing the average homeowner about $55 more annually.

This November, 57% of the school bond ballot propositions passed, according to a review of Texas Bond Review Board Data.

A sign advocating against Canutillo ISD’s Nov. 8 bond election seen on De Alva Drive on Nov. 1. (Angela Saavedra/El Paso Matters)

No El Paso County district has successfully passed a bond since 2020. This year, San Elizario ISD also saw its $24.5 million bond proposal for middle school facility upgrades rejected by 54% of voters.

“Generally I see that when bonds fail it’s due to a lack of communication about what the bond is and why it’s being held, and when they pass it’s because they did a good job of communicating that,” Gonzalez said.

That communication falls on both the district and its school board, he said, describing part of trustees’ role as communicating “the district’s needs (and) the students’ needs to the community and then also to take the community’s input back into the boardroom and make sure they are acting in accordance with the will of the voters.”

District and trustee roles moving forward

Reveles said the district is devising a series of listening sessions to hear from the community, including recent arrivals, business leaders and religious leaders. Those sessions would also be an opportunity for people to meet administrators and trustees.

Armando Rodriguez

Rodriguez, the most senior trustee who has been on the board since 2005, would also like the district to survey parents and the community at-large to learn how and why they voted. That could help trustees figure out whether residents would be comfortable passing a smaller bond, he said. Ultimately, trustees are the ones who call for a bond election based on the administration’s recommendation.

Recognizing that the board has to repair its image with some of the community, Rodriguez said he will push for the seven-member board to go through Lone Star Governance, a Texas Education Agency training focused on how trustees and their superintendent can best work together to improve student educational outcomes.

“A young board is going to have to go through a good amount of training to be able to build their capacity to continue to build a district that is looked upon (favorably),” Rodriguez said. 

All three trustees elected on Nov. 8 — Breanne Barnes, Lucy Borrego and Cindy Carrillo — are first-time school board members. The board will lose another senior trustee, Sergio Coronado, by the end of the year, as Coronado was elected to El Paso County Commissioners Court.

Breanne Barnes

Barnes, who campaigned on an anti-bond platform, believes that the bond failed for two reasons: its cost and what she believes was financial mismanagement around the 2011 bond.

Though the district held a series of community meetings in the lead-up to this year’s election, Barnes would like it to host additional meetings that focus solely on 2011 bond spending and explaining how contracts are awarded.

She also believes community trust in the district and board could be improved if more people are able to attend monthly board meetings: “If we really want our community members to be a part of our board meetings and be involved and be informed, then we need to give them an opportunity to actually do so.”

Board meetings start at 5:30 p.m., which she would like to be pushed back later in the evening to accommodate those with jobs. She also wants the district to advertise upcoming board meetings on campus marquees and include them in campus calendars.

Alderete wants to see trustees spend more time in the community listening to their constituents. She noted that she’s had little success trying to get in touch with trustees, who are elected at-large and represent the entire district.

“How you get out there is you go and you talk to the people; you listen to them,” Alderete said. “If big people like Beto O’Rourke can do it, you have the time to do it — that’s your position. You decided to take that job and take on that role.”

Future financial considerations

Galaviz and Barnes were at odds in the lead-up to the election, with the superintendent filing an ethics complaint against her over her alleged involvement in promoting anti-bond signs and mailers. The Texas Ethics Commission dismissed his complaint because it did “not comply with the legal and technical form requirements,” according to correspondence she shared with El Paso Matters.

Despite that, Galaviz said he views Barnes’ election to the board as a way to engage with and learn from those who opposed the bond to better craft a future bond program that voters would approve.

“It’s an opportunity to leverage her insight, her perspective, her opinion — as well as the other new members of the board — to really gather a better plan so that we can move forward,” he said.

Barnes expressed optimism that the trustees and superintendent will be able to work together.

“I’m just hoping that the board can move forward in unity and stop a lot of the divisiveness that we have seen over the last few years,” she said. “We need to stop shaming our community (for voting against the bonds) … and come together as Canutillo and say, okay what can we do to make this better together regardless of whether it’s with or without a bond.”

In January, the entire board will have a workshop to discuss how to fund needs that had been part of the bond proposal. These include $38 million in building roof repairs and the $1.1 million needed annually to repay debt used to purchase student laptops.

“What are you willing to sacrifice?” Galaviz said. “Everything’s on the table — programs, personnel, salaries, boundary changes. We have to come up with a good plan.”

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.