Update: 12:20 p.m. April 20: This story has been updated with the correct name of the political action committee supporting one of the candidates.

Decreasing enrollment and what to do about it is the hot issue in the Ysleta Independent School District race for District 6 trustee, where two candidates are vying to unseat the incumbent.

Deborah Frieze Torres, 73, and Christopher Hernandez, 38, are seeking to oust incumbent Sotero Ramirez Jr., whose term expires in May. District 2 and 4 also are up for election on May 6. However, one of the YISD incumbents, Connie Woodruff, in District 2 did not get an opponent.

District 6, which drew three candidates, represents the schools in the Ysleta High School area of about 3,700 students.

School board trustees hire, oversee and fire superintendents, approve the district budget and tax rate, and set district policies and goals. Trustee seats are nonpartisan and those elected serve four-year unpaid terms. Early voting begins April 24. 

The two District 6 challengers said YISD must do something about its declining enrollment. At its peak, YISD had about 50,000 students in 1990. In 2020, the number dropped to 40,401. As of February, the district was down to 36,127 students.

Since 2015, 18 schools have been closed, 12 permanently, and six have been demolished to build new schools or rebranded as other campuses.

The continuous drop in the district’s enrollment numbers was the catalyst for Hernandez — an organizer working for political campaigns, nonprofit organizations and elected officials — to run for the trustee seat.

Christopher Hernandez

“It seems that no one is even trying to improve (decreasing enrollment),” he said. “With my professional experience as a community organizer, I knew running for school board was the best way that I could start to hold the district accountable for the students, parents and taxpayers of YISD.”

If elected, Hernandez said he would address enrollment by attracting families to the area, involving parents in the process and having an aggressive recruitment program.

“We need to invite and educate the community about the opportunities at the only ‘A’ rated district in the county,” he said. “We have to get out there and have conversations with families. We can’t just hope they choose us simply because they may live in the area. Increasing enrollment will be a tremendous challenge, but it is a challenge that needs to be addressed and it will need our full effort if we are to be successful.”

Debbie Frieze Torres

Torres, who worked as a paraprofessional at YISD before becoming a program manager at UTEP, grew up in District 6 with her daughter, stepdaughter, and three grandchildren who graduated from YISD. She said she wanted to run for the position due to her long history of community service.

“Serving as YISD trustee for YISD District 6 means I can have an opportunity to support teachers, kids and parents in their educational journey,” she said. “My service on the YISD Facility Advisory Committee gave me valuable insight on the importance of providing a positive and safe educational setting for teachers, students, and staff.”

Hernandez’s father and most of his family are Ysleta High School alumni, and his daughters attend Pasodale Elementary.

The Ysleta High School area has always had a special place in my heart,” he said. “I want to do everything I can to ensure that (my daughters) and their classmates have the best educational opportunities while also strengthening our district’s fiscal responsibility.”

If elected, Torres said she would support quality education for all children to learn in a safe environment, competitive wages to retain quality teachers, and wise budgetary stewardship to avoid tax increases.  

“I am a mom and grandmom,” she said. “This has given me a ringside seat to experience and understand the importance of quality education for all of our children.  I also had the opportunity to advocate for my deaf daughter’s education and I know that parental involvement is non-negotiable.”

During his 11 years as a community organizer, Hernandez has worked with elected officials, candidates and nonprofits.

“Every position I have had has required me to speak to community members and hear their concerns,” he said. “There may be disagreements amongst community members on policy stances, but everybody wants to be informed, involved, and empowered to take action.”

Modernizing education and preparing children for the workforce of the world today drove Hernandez to seek the trustee position, where he said mental health support for students is a priority.

Torres received $864 in-kind contributions from the Ysleta Teachers Association Political Action Committee for campaign materials. In addition, she spent $675 in personal funds for campaign signs and flyers. No other donations were shown in her campaign report.

Hernandez’s contributions were more varied, with 14 donors giving about $1,456. Ten of his donors were from El Paso, two from other parts of Texas and one from a person in Indiana, and another from New York City. His in-kind contributions included $748 from Fair Data LLC for voter database access and SMS text messaging

Ramirez, 64, did not respond to interview requests. Ramirez’s campaign finance reports showed a $159 contribution from Patricia Ramirez, who shares his home address, to purchase political signs.

Christian Betancourt is an urban affairs reporter at El Paso Matters and Equitable Cities Reporting Fellow for Borderland Narratives with Next City. Betancourt has been a local news reporter since 2012,...