Update Dec. 13, 8:35 p.m.: The EPISD Board of Trustees voted 4-2 to adopt the superintendent’s evaluation tool in its entirety, with Trustees Josh Acevedo and Leah Hanany in opposition.

The El Paso Independent School District Board of Trustees remains divided over whether “rightsizing” the district should be part of the superintendent annual evaluation tool that they are set to vote on Tuesday evening.

Trustees Josh Acevedo and Leah Hanany, who have been vocal critics of how EPISD previously handled school closures, worry that tying rightsizing goals to the superintendent’s  evaluation will lead the district to repeat mistakes of the past.

However, at least three of the other trustees believe that rightsizing is a key part of ensuring EPISD’s financial success after more than a decade of declining student enrollment.

Acevedo, who represents campuses in the Austin High School feeder pattern, said he will push for the six-member board to vote on the “rightsizing” part of the evaluation separately.

The superintendent’s evaluation tool is broken down into five levers that focus on student academic achievement, equity and fiscal responsibility among other factors. The third lever, named “Destination District,” includes sub-goals of increasing enrollment by 500 students over the next three years, improving the district’s image through marketing, reducing the budget deficit by $8 million annually over the next three years, and “strategically rightsizing facilities by 15% by 2025.”

Acevedo said that the district does not have a comprehensive and transparent plan to close schools that can be used to evaluate Superintendent Diana Sayavedra, who will mark her one-year anniversary next month. The Texas Education Code requires that superintendents be evaluated by their board of trustees annually, evaluations that are often tied to salary raises or contract extensions.

Josh Acevedo

“You need a plan for transparency,” Acevedo said, adding that it must include criteria for closure and community involvement in those decisions. “You need to tell the public what the process and the transition will look like.”

Among the new subsection’s supporters is Trustee Israel Irrobali, who represents the Andress High School feeder pattern. Irrobali said the superintendent’s evaluation should include that condition because of EPISD’s future expected budget deficit of approximately $30 million that needs to be addressed.

“It was made very clear to everybody in all the budget meetings … that school consolidations and closures would have to be a reality that we have to start planning toward,” Irrobali said.

EPISD has lost more than 12,000 students over the last decade, which has greatly reduced the state revenue it receives, as Texas largely funds public school districts based on the average daily number of students in attendance. As of late October, EPISD reported having approximately 50,000 students enrolled across its 76 campuses. 

Israel Irrobali

Including a rightsizing target will hold Sayavedra accountable, Irrobali said, adding that this issue is about long-term fiscal planning to benefit students, families and taxpayers. It is the superintendent’s job, he said, to oversee the creation of a facilities master plan that will include enrollment projections, in addition to a strategy for transparent community outreach around potential campus closures or consolidations.

Irrobali said Sayavedra came up with the 15% rightsizing figure because it was what she thought could be done based on metrics.

Irrobali and Trustee Isabel Hernandez each assigned that subgoal the highest points possible in trustees’ individual rankings of the sub-goals that they wanted included in the evaluation, according to a document shown at the Dec. 2 board workshop. Trustee Daniel Call, who represents the Coronado High School feeder pattern, assigned it the second-highest points. Board President Al Velarde gave it the fourth highest. Acevedo and Hanany did not assign it any points.

“This is going to be a contentious issue so either way it’s going to be hard,” Hernandez told El Paso Matters. “I’m having a hard time with it myself.”

Call declined to comment on the evaluation tool ahead of the meeting.

Velarde, the longest-serving member on the board, said the “rightsizing” item is not specific to school closures, but includes other measures to even out enrollment across campuses. The evaluation tool notes that rightsizing facilities could include revising attendance boundary lines or expanding academic programs to new campuses.

“We’re only talking (about) examples of ideas,” said Velarde, who represents the Burges and Jefferson high school feeder patterns.

Leah Hanany

Hanany, who represents the South-Central campuses most impacted by 2019’s school closures, said that she is unaware of any other school district that has made school closures part of a superintendent’s annual review. EPISD needs to have a facilities master plan in place before it can begin to consider how campus closures should be used to review a superintendent’s performance, she said.

“This is not a good model for us to be creating,” Hanany said. “I think there are a lot of good things in that evaluation tool. I think there are a lot of things that are (student educational) outcome focused; (lever 3.3) is not one of them.”

Like Acevedo, she hopes that the board will decide to remove that part of the evaluation tool before they vote on it Tuesday.

Her fellow trustees, she said, need to remember the district’s history with school closures and how they have been “historically damaging” to families.

Tuesday’s board meeting comes weeks after EPISD reached a settlement with Familias Unidas Por La Educación. The community group sued EPISD in June 2020 alleging that the district discriminated against poor, Hispanic and Mexican-American families, particularly those in the Chamizal neighborhood, when it closed Alta Vista, Beall and Burleson elementary schools at the end of the 2018-2019 school year.

Familias Unidas del Chamizal Founder Hilda Villegas speaks about EPISD’s superintendent search at a meeting at Bowie High School on Oct. 26, 2021. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

“… among the schools that met EPISD’s criteria for closure, the three schools EPISD targeted for closure were among the most Hispanic and Mexican-American elementary schools in the District,” the suit reads. Unlike closures tied to the 2016 bond program, students from Beall and Burleson were not sent to newly-constructed or remodeled campuses but were instead reassigned to Douglas and Zavala elementary schools, both of which were built in the 1920s, the suit notes.

The early November settlement came after U.S. District Judge David Briones rejected EPISD’s motion for summary judgment to have the lawsuit dismissed for lack of evidence. Briones found that Familias Unidas “has produced evidence that is sufficiently detailed to establish a genuine issue concerning every essential element of this case.” The settlement stipulates that it is “not an admission of liability on the part of any of the Parties” to the lawsuit.

Under the agreement, which Familias Unidas shared with El Paso Matters, EPISD will not lease or sell the Beall or Burleson properties for the next four years or until voters decide on a future EPISD bond proposal — whichever comes sooner. EPISD will also spend up to $350,000 on a “comprehensive equity audit” within the next 18 months. Lastly, it will pay Texas RioGrande Legal Aid $60,000 to cover part of the group’s legal costs.

“The terms of the agreement included actions that El Paso ISD was already committed to such as planning to engage in an equity audit,” EPISD said in a statement. “El Paso ISD will continue with its plan for an equity audit as part of its commitment to provide inclusive and fair learning experiences that support the whole child.”

Ahead of Tuesday’s board vote, Familias Unidas sent a letter to the Board of Trustees urging them to not make school closure goals part of the superintendent’s evaluation.

“​​Requiring the Superintendent to make budget cuts, which could include additional closures, without considering other factors could lead to the same problems we just settled,” the letter from Familias Unidas President Hilda Villegas reads.

“We remain willing to work with the district to improve enrollment, daily attendance and outcomes for students, including by maximizing meaningful parent participation,” the letter also noted.

Daniel Perez covers higher education for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus. He has written on military and higher education issues in El Paso for more than 30 years.

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.