Editor’s note: This story contains explicit language.

The late-night phone call between two Socorro school board members to rehash the evening’s board meeting started out with an innocuous question: would Ricardo “Richard” Castellano be joining Pablo Barrera on a podcast?

Castellano said he’d be late. He’d be coming from a meeting with the interim superintendent, where he planned to discuss the principal of the school where his wife Gabriela taught third grade.

“I’m going to talk to (interim superintendent Marta) Carmona about this principal here thinking she’s all badass. I’m about to clip her wings,” Castellano says.

La vas a bajar del avión? You’re going to get her off her high plane?” Barrera asks.

“Yeah, I mean she wants to write me up. Go ahead. Go ahead, bitch. Well, she sent it to my wife. My wife got written up,” Castellano responds.

Their entire Aug. 10, 2021, conversation — and nearly the entire day leading up to it and the day after — was captured by a recording device or application on Gabriela Castellano’s phone. The disgruntled teacher subsequently emailed the recording she made to the Socorro Independent School District’s interim human resources director on Aug. 30, 2021, as part of a grievance against the Bill Sybert School principal and assistant principal.

Socorro ISD has sought to keep the recording from being made public, going so far as to file an improper reconsideration request with the Texas Attorney General’s office after the office ruled in August 2022 that the recording had to be released in response to a public records request from El Paso Matters.

The recording captures trustees engaging in crude behavior in the privacy of their homes. Castellano’s words also reflect the school board member overstepping his role and abusing his authority.

The 33-hour long audio file was damning enough that its discovery in fall 2021 prompted a Texas Rangers investigation into Castellano for official oppression, a misdemeanor offense that elected officials can be charged with if they use their office to unlawfully punish others or impede their rights.

The investigation remains “active and ongoing,” the Texas Department of Public Safety confirmed on Dec. 14.

Ricardo and Gabriela Castellano did not respond to multiple interview requests. Barrera also did not make himself available for an interview, despite repeated requests.

Winning elections, and shifting power

Ricardo Castellano narrowly unseated longtime Trustee Angelica Rodriguez in the May 2021 school board election. Rodriguez had held the District 3 seat for more than a decade, and was part of a majority faction that enjoyed consecutive years of control.

The balance of power changed in 2021 when Castellano and Barrera ousted two incumbents — by the razor-thin margins of 23 and 24 votes, respectively. The newly elected trustees sided with Trustees David Morales and Eduardo “Eddie” Mena, who were elected the year prior, to form a new majority on the seven-member board that was critical of the superintendent and members of his leadership team.

Trustees Ricardo “Richard” Castellano, left, and Pablo Barrera return to the board room after taking a photo with Socorro Independent School District students during the Dec. 13 board meeting. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Days after the election, longtime Superintendent José Espinoza resigned rather than face the prospect of working with an increasingly hostile board.

In the recording, both Castellano and Barrera appear to be buoyed by the impact their victory was having on the district.

“We beat the odds, man, you and me,” Castellano tells Barrera. “We’re gods right now.”

“We’re school board gods,” Barrera replies.

The audio recording reveals that Castellano was already unsatisfied with Interim Superintendent Marta Carmona, in place for less than two months, and whose appointment he and Barrera opposed. Though the superintendent and the internal auditors are the only employees SISD trustees directly oversee, Castellano’s focus was on ousting select administrators, including his wife’s campus principal, Gabriela Elliott.

“We got an idiot there,” Castellano says of Carmona, as he and Barrera discuss the Aug. 10, 2021, school board meeting, which had wrapped up hours earlier. They had hoped the board would adopt a face mask mandate; instead, trustees took no action and Carmona said she would not issue such a policy herself despite a handful of other Texas superintendents having done so. (The SISD Board of Trustees later adopted a mask mandate on Aug. 18.)

“Well, I’m going to see tomorrow how she acts with this Elliott deal, you know when I bring everything up about this principal. See what she does,” Castellano continues. “… if she doubles down and protects her, then I’m saying, ‘fine, there’s no need for me to go to you anymore when things happen in the district because you’re not taking action and I’ll just do what I have to do.’”

“I’ll take care of Elliott tomorrow; put her in her place,” he later vows.

Trustees Ricardo “Richard” Castellano, left, David Morales and Interim Superintendent Marta Carmona listen to public comment on Aug. 10, 2021. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Carmona and Elliott declined to be interviewed for this story.

Carmona left the district for El Paso ISD in August 2022. Elliott served as principal of Bill Sybert K-8 School from 2016 through June 2022, when she became principal of Socorro Middle School.

Mena, the current board president, spoke highly of Elliott in an interview with El Paso Matters.

“Mrs. Elliott was a great principal at Bill Sybert — an award-winning principal with a lot of accolades and recommendations and awards,” he said. “She’s a great principal considering all the stuff that she was going through with Mr. Castellano constantly being there (at the campus) with his wife while she was teaching.”

Emailing a grievance — and a recording

At 9:52 p.m. on Aug. 30, 2021, Gabriela Castellano emailed SISD Interim Human Resources Director Thomas Redlinger the audio file as part of a grievance against her campus principal and assistant principal who she accused of “targeting and excluding” her for months.

Gabriela Castellano was incensed about the Aug. 10 meeting Elliott and Assistant Principal Lorenza Gonzalez had with her to discuss two of Ricardo Castellano’s recent visits to her classroom during what Elliott said was “the instructional day.”

Gabriela Castellano appears to have turned on her recorder at the start of the Aug. 10 meeting; when she intended to stop it is unclear. In its communication with the Texas attorney general, the district wrote that the recording “appears to have been made by mistake and inadvertently disclosed to the district.”

“In the future, if you’re going to have any guests, please get authorization prior to because it’s during instructional time. … Instructional time is super valued,” Elliott says in the recording.

“We’re not nitpicking on me, right, because my husband’s a board trustee, right?” Castellano retorts, adding: “To me, this is nothing serious. Not an offense. Everybody’s husbands and boyfriends come in.”

Elliott maintains that she won’t discuss other employees, but says she would have the same conversation with anyone else who was bringing guests in through the back doors without having them sign in at the front desk.

An Aug. 10, 2021, meeting between Bill Sybert School Principal Gabriela Elliott, Assistant Principal Lorenza Gonzalez and teacher Gabriela Castellano, which Castellano recorded on her phone and later sent to SISD as part of a grievance.

A 2016 internal investigation conducted at one of Castellano’s previous campuses, Lujan-Chavez Elementary School, revealed that multiple employees perceived her behavior to be “creating an environment of intimidation, and fear of retaliation or grievance.”

“One former principal left because she could not deal with Mrs. Castellano anymore,” an anonymous employee is quoted in the investigation report as telling Carmona, who was the internal auditor for curriculum and instruction at that time. SISD released the report to El Paso Matters in response to a public records request.

“There’s one teacher who causes a lot of problems with other teachers. Her redacted comes in with a lot of authority,” reads another quote, which notes that the redacted individual “is a police officer and comes in with his gun.”

At the time of this investigation, Ricardo Castellano was employed with the El Paso Police Department as a lieutenant. He retired from the department in August 2018, according to Texas Commission on Law Enforcement records.

A conversation between SISD Trustee Ricardo “Richard” Castellano and his wife Gabriela on their drive home from the Aug. 10, 2021, board meeting.

Gabriela Castellano was reassigned from Bill Sybert School to James P. Butler Elementary sometime after being placed on administrative leave on March 9, 2022. That was the day that the Texas Rangers were seen at Bill Sybert, KFOX-Channel 14 reported.

The agency is investigating Gabriela Castellano for stalking, according to the heavily redacted investigative report the Rangers released to El Paso Matters in response to a public records request. The Texas Penal Code defines stalking as when a person, “on more than one occasion,” knowingly threatens someone such that a “reasonable person” would feel “harassed, annoyed, alarmed, abused, tormented, embarrassed, or offended.”

SISD declined to answer whether Castellano has shown up for work since being reassigned, saying it “does not publicly comment on confidential personnel matters.” However, she remains employed, the district’s spokesperson confirmed.

A trustee stepping out of bounds

It’s unknown what Ricardo Castellano asked of Carmona when he spoke with her on Aug. 11, 2021. But after he gets home from a meeting at the district, he tells his wife and two adult children, “They’re going to wind up moving her boss.”

“You’re my hero,” Gabriela Castellano cackles.

“I don’t have a timeline, but it’s going to be soon,” Ricardo Castellano says. (Elliott, however, remained principal of Bill Sybert School throughout the entirety of Carmona’s tenure.)

Attempting to influence someone’s hiring, firing or employment status “very clearly is out of bounds in terms of what I train board members to do,” said Thomas Alsbury, a professor of educational leadership at Northwest University who has consulted for school boards and state school board associations nationwide. Such behavior would constitute trustee micromanagement and overreach into the district’s operations, which is the superintendent’s job.

A trustee’s role, Alsbury said, “is to monitor the progress on strategic goals, not to monitor or try to control the processes or operational ends of the organization.”

Both SISD Board President Mena and Superintendent Nate Carman agreed that it would be inappropriate for a trustee to direct the superintendent on how to handle a personnel issue.

“It is not their job to initiate any type of proposed personnel action,” said Carman, who the board hired on March 14, 2022. Trustees can only vote for or against recommendations that the superintendent brings to them for hiring, terminating or non-renewing an employee’s contract. In SISD, trustees are tasked with approving all hiring decisions for assistant principal positions and above.

Gabriela and Ricardo “Richard” Castellano, center, watch as Nate Carman speaks to community members after the school board selected him as the sole superintendent finalist for the Socorro Independent School District on Feb. 21, 2022. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Asked how much he considers a trustee’s personal opinion before presenting them a hiring recommendation, Carman responded “zero.” “We base our recommendation on their (the applicant’s) qualifications, their experience and how they present themselves in the interview,” he said.

Trustees frequently receive calls from parents, teachers and employees, Mena said. They in turn can ask the superintendent or an auditor to look into the concern; beyond that, trustees have no purview over the subsequent course of action the district takes.

Carman was adamant that trustees should not bring any concerns to him that involve their spouse or another family member in order to avoid violating the district’s nepotism policy. Instead, he said their relatives should go through the standard employee grievance process.

Mena was blunt in his assessment of what a trustee should do if faced with a concern from their spouse: “Stay away from that. … I wouldn’t touch that with a 10-foot pole.”

At present, Castellano and Trustee Paul Guerra are the only members of the SISD Board of Trustees whose spouses work for the district (both are teachers). The Texas Government Code allows relatives of school employees to run for trustee positions, though it generally prohibits a relative from being hired after a trustee is elected.

Alsbury believes that the law should go further and should prohibit an individual from serving as a trustee if their spouse is a current employee.

“I think there’s conflict of interest in many, perhaps even most of the decisions that a board member would make if they have a spouse,” Alsbury said. “Obviously they’re negotiating contracts and salary, which would affect not only their spouse but them.”

He pointed to budgetary, facilities, curriculum and employee disciplinary decisions as other areas that could create — or at least give the perception of — a conflict of interest.

‘You would hope our trustees would not talk like that’

Carman, the current Socorro superintendent, said he has only listened to the section of the recording that captured the phone call between Ricardo and Gabriela Castellano and Barrera. Their conversation about the principal and the interim superintendent was “concerning,” Carman said, highlighting Ricardo Castellano’s mention of how he would “clip” the principal’s “wings.”

“They should not be discussing individual employees in that manner,” Carman said, later adding: “You would hope our trustees would not talk like that about our employees.”

An Aug. 10, 2021, phone conversation between SISD Trustees Ricardo “Richard” Castellano and Pablo Barrera.

Yet during the call, Castellano tells Barrera that a longtime SISD administrator “could die of COVID, who cares. The world would not miss her. She’s fucked up. This district is messed up, man. It’s all messed up.”

Barrera calls a separate administrator an “oompa loompa.” Earlier in the recording, Castellano referred to that same person as a “fat fuck” in a conversation with his wife.

The trustees also discuss certain people who they would like to fill open positions, with Barrera mentioning that someone is going to get him a list of “names to look out for if they put in for the assistant superintendent spot,” which include another administrator’s “minions.”

“It’s just all negativity to me,” Mena said of the portions of the call he has heard. The law firm representing the district made the recording available to all seven trustees on Dec. 9, the same day it released it to El Paso Matters.

From left, SISD Trustees Eduardo “Eddie” Mena, David Morales and Ricardo “Richard” Castellano, listen as student recognitions are read at the start of the Aug. 16, 2022, meeting. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

“I don’t think I heard not one positive remark from those people, and I’m sorry to say that,” Mena continued. “It’s embarrassing for them.”

Trustee David Morales, who was board president at the time of the recording, declined to comment.

Socorro Education Association President Angie Soto received the recording as part of a separate records request that she filed in order to support union members who told her they were being bullied and harassed by Gabriela Castellano.

Socorro Education Association President Angie Soto speaks at the Dec. 13 board meeting. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

“I told my members that I would proceed with this (request) so that they would not experience any retaliation if they spoke out against this board member and his wife,” said Soto, who taught in SISD for 28 years before retiring in 2015 to lead the union, which counts approximately 800 members.

Soto said she has no intent of publicly releasing the audio, despite claims Gabriela Castellano has posted to her personal Facebook account attacking Soto.

“We are now animals in a circus rink. We have been dehumanized by those who feel entitled to RAPING our privacy,” Castellano wrote in a Dec. 12 post about the potential publication of the recording. In her social media post, Castellano does not mention that she was the one who recorded the conversation and sent it to the school district.

Soto expressed disappointment over the parts of the audio that she has listened to.

“We have expectations that our board members will be professional, treat each other with respect and understand what role each person plays,” she said.

The Socorro Education Association did not endorse Castellano or Barrera in the May 2021 election.

Texas Rangers become involved

The Texas Rangers, the investigative arm of the Texas Department of Public Safety, was made aware of Gabriela Castellano’s audio recording in October 2021, according to Jose Castorena, the former chief of the SISD Police Department. Castorena was fired in August 2022, which he alleges was retaliation for his involvement in the Rangers’ investigation — a claim the superintendent denies, citing alleged policy violations by the chief.

Castorena told El Paso Matters that the police department discovered the recording after Carmona brought him emails to “review for a possible criminal matter.” Castorena said he immediately looped in the Texas Rangers given the possible conflict of interest from the involvement of a trustee and the interim superintendent.

The Rangers took the lead, while the district police department assisted with interviewing witnesses, Castorena said. At some point, the Rangers “presented the information received to the District Attorney’s Office and the District Attorney’s Office, at that time, agreed there was enough to continue with an investigation.”

A DPS report notes that the DA’s Office on March 8, 2022, assigned Texas Ranger Juan Torrez to open an investigation into allegations of stalking by Gabriela Castellano and allegations of official oppression by Ricardo Castellano.

DA’s Office spokesperson Paul Ferris directed El Paso Matters to the El Paso County Attorney’s Office for comment, saying that office was “overseeing the case.” County Attorney’s Office spokesperson Elhiu Dominguez said he could not confirm or deny whether the office is looking at a specific case.

As of Dec. 14, the Rangers’ investigation is “active and ongoing,” according to DPS.

The Socorro Independent School District headquarters on Rojas Drive. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

SISD police’s involvement ended after Carman was hired, Castorena said, as the new superintendent issued a directive to the department to stop assisting the Texas Rangers.

The former chief, who described being “appalled” by parts of the recording, said his hope is “that the law supports the people affected by this situation … (so) the district is able to move forward and those affected find closure.”

The recording has also been turned over to the Texas Education Agency as part of the agency’s open investigation into the district, said Carman. That investigation started in winter 2020 in response to an internal audit by the district that discovered that 29 high school students had graduated the prior spring despite not being cleared to do so.

The TEA investigation remains “active,” Carman said. The investigation has “broadened” beyond its initial scope as a result of information trustees have provided the agency, he noted.

Asked what has been his response to the release of the recording, the superintendent said it will ultimately be up to the board to decide how to proceed.

“I don’t have the authority to direct or remove a trustee, of course, so the board will have to self govern and decide — once they’ve all had a chance to hear it — what, if any, action they would take,” Carman said.

“We still have to do business together,” Mena said. “We have to work together and approve items on the agenda and the budget. It’s just something that we have to deal with.”

Update 1:17 p.m., Dec. 22: This story was updated to correct a Spanish language quote from Pablo Barrera.

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.