Two candidates are vying to take the District 2 seat on the El Paso Independent School District Board of Trustees in the May 6 election.
One, Alejandro “Alex” Cuellar, is an assistant El Paso County attorney with more than a decade of experience in law and local government. The other, Will Veliz, is a single father who said he is eager to dive into public office. The winner will replace current board president, Al Velarde, who is not seeking reelection. His term is set to end in May.
A third candidate, Enrique Herrera, had initially thrown his hat in the ring for the race, but told El Paso Matters he decided to drop his campaign after his mother was hospitalized. Herrera’s name will still appear on the ballot because he did not withdraw before the deadline.
District 2 covers the Burges High School and Jefferson High School areas, as part of the largest school district in the region with 50,333 students.
Trustees are tasked with setting policies and goals for the district, which are then implemented by the superintendent and administrators. They also adopt an annual budget and tax rate and are in charge of overseeing and evaluating the superintendent, who they have the power to fire and hire.
EPISD trustees serve four-year terms and don’t have term limits. School board races are nonpartisan and trustees are not paid to serve. Early voting begins on April 24 and runs to May 2. Election Day is May 6.
Cuellar, 39, serves in the criminal division of the County Attorney’s Office and has been working for the county since 2010. Over the years, he’s worked as an investigator with the county Public Defender’s Office, a juvenile prosecutor and an assistant district attorney. His wife is a lifelong teacher who has worked in all three of the city’s major school districts, and his father was a Vietnam veteran.
Now in his first time running for public office, he hopes to use his experience with the law and his family’s background in education and the military to improve the district.
“I want my legal knowledge and experience to hopefully have a better board. An honest board, you know, that serves with integrity and excellence for everybody,” Cuellar said in an interview.
Veliz, 28, is a self-employed Realtor and the owner of Veliz Real Estate. He previously ran for El Paso City Council District 3 in 2019 and 2020, losing both times to Cassandra Hernandez. He has served on a number of city boards and is currently the youngest member of the El Paso Firemen & Policemen’s Pension Fund Board of Trustees.
He thinks that youth could bring a new perspective to the board.
“What I hear from constituents and parents and voters is that they want the new blood to come out,” Veliz said in an interview. “I think it gives me an edge because I was just in the education system not too long ago, so I can see how it’s progressed. I can see how it’s changed, but I can also see how we can go moving forward.”
Both candidates cited school safety as one of their top priorities if they were to be elected – and both said they are against arming teachers.
“I think educators and administrators have enough on their plate. Then to now basically have them, you know, ‘deputized’ as law enforcement officers, that’s not their job, their job is to teach our kids,” Cuellar said.
“The teachers I’ve spoken to about this in my family, old teachers and teachers in the district, have highlighted that they don’t feel comfortable with that burden, nor having colleagues being armed,” Veliz added. “They are in the classroom on a day-to-day basis so I would support them on their stance on that.”
Cuellar said he would consider looking into having more uniformed officers at each campus and Veliz said he hopes to strengthen the connection with the district and local law enforcement to keep schools safe.
Campaign finance reports published by EPISD on April 6 show Cuellar collected $6,290 in political contributions. Veliz’s finance reports show he did not collect any donations for his campaign.
However, the political action committee Kids First of El Paso — funded largely by contributions by El Paso business leaders Woody Hunt and Richard Castro — said in a filing that Veliz is among four school board candidates it is supporting in this election cycle.
The Kids First filing says it also is supporting Valerie Beals in EPISD and David Morales and Eduardo “Eddie” Mena in Socorro ISD. The PAC has spent $12,700 with VMP Political Strategies, a firm owned by former El Paso County Commissioner Vince Perez, to support candidates it favors, according to the report.
Cuellar said he was inspired to run for the board of trustees after seeing the last two superintendents, Juan Cabrera and Lorenzo García, leave their positions amid scandals and wants to help bring accountability to the district.
“Accountability across the board with educators, with the administrators and with the students as well,” he said. “Make sure everybody’s treated the same; no one’s giving preferential treatment based upon certain issues that anybody wants to sweep under the rug.”
Cuellar also said that he wants to emphasize working with students that slip between the cracks to help them succeed.
“It seems like there’s a lot of programs and resources for you know, for kids that are succeeding. I want to make sure that those kids that need the resources the most, maybe even mental health support, are getting the services that they need. Especially at Delta and especially at you know, in areas that are underperforming,” Cuellar said.
Though Cuellar’s two children attend the Ysleta Independent School District, he said that wouldn’t stop him from serving EPISD the best he can.
Veliz said was motivated to join the race by his 3-year-old daughter, who will soon be attending pre-k at EPISD, and a desire to make it a better place for her.
“I see a school district that I grew up in and was adjacent to throughout high school, but I still see the same resources and programs available from when I graduated high school 10 years ago. And I got a real problem with that because I’m a full believer that we as a city and as a district need to progress forward,” Veliz said.
Veliz said one of his greatest priorities on the board will be to help keep property taxes low while ensuring schools are properly funded.
“The school district is the largest portion of our property tax rate. I want to make sure that money is going to programs that are efficient, but I also want the trustees and superintendent to be able to explain where every dollar and every penny is going,” he said.
Disclosure: Richard Castro and the Woody and Gayle Hunt Family Foundation have been financial supporters of El Paso Matters. Financial supporters play no role in El Paso Matters’ journalism.