District 1 candidates Alice “Alicia” Gardea and Tony Ayub are running to unseat incumbent Eduardo Mena in the Socorro Independent School District board of trustees election.
Gardea and Ayub said they want to fix staff turnover, board division and school performance following pandemic closures. Mena, who is running for reelection, did not respond to El Paso Matters.
His opponents described a current school board fraught with tension within the community. In 2019 trustees voted to end then-Superintendent José Espinoza’s nine-year tenure, days after newcomers who were critical of Espinoza’s performance were elected to the board.
Last year, the school board also fired police chief Jose Castorena for alleged violations of district policy. Castorena told El Paso Matters that he believed his termination was retaliation for involvement with a Texas Rangers investigation involving a sitting SISD board member.
In the fall of 2021, the Texas Rangers began investigating current SISD trustee Ricardo Castellano for using his office to unlawfully punish others. In what appears to be an accidental audio recording emailed to the school, Castellano can be heard telling fellow SISD trustee Pablo Barrera about his intention to oust a principal who disciplined his wife, a teacher.
Gardea and Ayub told El Paso Matters the school board does not have the authority to influence hiring and firing of staff. The superintendent and internal auditors are the only employees SISD trustees directly oversee.
Along with stability and employee retention, the two candidates prioritized school safety and mental health care, particularly after the school shooting in Uvalde.
SISD – which spans Far East El Paso, Socorro and Horizon City – hit an all-time high enrollment this year, surpassing 48,000 students. The boundaries for District 1 encompass the Montwood and Eastview neighborhoods in El Paso. All SISD residents can also vote in the board’s At-Large race, which has seven candidates vying for two seats.
Only 3.6% of registered voters cast a ballot in the school district’s last election in 2021.
Early voting runs from April 24 to May 2. Election Day is May 6. Here’s where SISD District 1 candidates stand:
Voters elected Mena, a former FedEx driver, in 2019. Mena is a U.S. Army veteran and has two sons who attended the district, according to his biography on the SISD website.
Mena, 57, did not respond to multiple requests for an interview, but recently commented on the new SISD health plan, which some employees said raised out-of-pocket costs. Mena said he did not have a full understanding of the specifics of the new health plan, but described employees’ issues as “growing pains” that will eventually subside.
Kids First of El Paso PAC – whose major funders include El Paso business leaders Woody Hunt and Richard Castro – is supporting his campaign through consultant VMP Strategies owned by former El Paso County Commissioner Vince Perez, PAC treasurer Eddie Rodriguez said via email. Hunt and Castro have made contributions to traditional school districts and charter schools, privately run institutions that take public funding.
Both Gardea and Ayub denounced charter schools.
An April 6 campaign finance report filed with the Texas Ethics Commission shows that the PAC spent $12,746 to support four EPISD and SISD candidates, including Mena. As an independent expenditure, it is not considered a direct contribution to Mena’s campaign.
Mena has raised $3,020, according to his latest campaign finance report.
Gardea, 46, is a retired teacher and school counselor with 28 years of experience in SISD, including in special education. All four of her children attended the district. Her wife is a band director at SSG Manuel R. Puentes Middle School, her daughter is a district-wide music therapist and her sister is a special education clerk. Before retiring, Gardea was a member of the American School Counselor Association. Socorro AFT, a local affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, has endorsed her candidacy.
“I’m an educator by heart, not a politician,” Gardea said. “I think that’s what’s missing from our board. We sat on the inside.”
On prioritizing special education: Gardea said she was worried about the shortage of teachers working in special education. Her own son was a special education student at SISD, so she’s seen first-hand how special education can set students up for success as an adult. As a trustee, Gardea would support initiatives to attract and retain staff for special education.
“My son is a product of Socorro,” she said. “He’s been successful, independent, has employment skills, and a lot of that is because of Socorro. We have more kids qualifying for special ed, but not hiring more to keep up with that demand.”
On teacher compensation: Gardea said teachers should have defined working hours to avoid burnout, and be compensated for the work they do outside their working hours. Oftentimes teachers bring their work home because of unrealistic class sizes, attend meetings and are involved in extracurricular school activities, she said.
While emergencies might happen, meetings in general should have advanced notice. Smaller classroom sizes come down to staffing. Gardea said the new health care plan at SISD, approved unanimously by the board in August, hurts employees and would need to change to attract new hires. Turnover in higher-up positions has also affected hiring.
On school safety and mental health: Both police and school staff, including new employees, should have up-to-date training in how to respond to an active shooter, Gardea said. Staff should also be trained to recognize red flags in students to avoid a situation like in Uvalde, where the gunman and former student exhibited warning signs leading up to the shooting. This ability to recognize warning signs extends not only to teachers, but cafeteria and office workers because “the entire school is our eyes and ears,” she said.
Gardea said she used to have a short interview with every student and ask them if they had one adult they could talk to and trust. The child who says “no” is the one you focus on, she said.
But school counselors, while they provide academic and personal guidance, are not therapists, she said. Gardea wants to explore where staff could refer at-risk students, such as to trained mental health care professionals or a mentorship program. Community organization Project Vida provides accessible, on-campus counseling for families, so expanding the partnership is one possibility, she suggested. Another possibility is for the district to work with the University of Texas at El Paso students working on their professional counselor license.
On uniting the school board: Gardea said she wanted to draw on her background as a counselor to act as a peacemaker on the board and de-escalate combative situations.
“It makes you cringe a little bit just to watch our board meetings,” Gardea said. “Fighting and nitpicking and finding ways of getting at each other. How is that ever going to be what’s best for kids?”
As a retiree, Gardea said she has the time to commit to an open door policy for the SISD community. A trustee does not have the role nor authority to discipline a teacher or principal, but she can act as a sounding board for parents, she said.
Gardea has raised $3,075, which includes a $2,500 donation from Socorro AFT, according to her latest campaign finance report.
Tony Ayub, 63, is a professor at El Paso Community College and coordinator for the college’s Emergency Medical Services Paramedic degree program. His wife is a retired teacher and his children attended SISD, where he was a band booster parent. Ayub served as an SISD at-large trustee from 2008 to 2019, narrowly losing his reelection after 11 years on the board.
The Socorro Educators Association endorsed Ayub.
On improving the workplace environment: Ayub said his first priority is addressing staff vacancies and improving the workplace environment at SISD. Texas has mandated additional responsibilities that strain already understaffed teachers, he said. The school board should seek available state funding to support teachers.
The managerial style can also change to create a less adversarial relationship between administrators and staff, Ayub said. He suggested that walkthrough observations, a form of evaluating teachers, include what teachers are doing correctly and can be expanded upon – not just notes about what they’re doing wrong.
On the role of the trustee: Ayub said he decided to run for the board again after learning about the audio recording involving current trustees. Right now the board is fragmented and employees are afraid of getting targeted by trustees, which he wants to change, he said.
A trustee’s job is to set goals for the superintendent and come to decision-making meetings prepared, he said. For Ayub, this means getting input from different district committees, from facilities to finance, to get status updates on projects on bonds.
Trustees should be on top of state legislation and how it affects the district, Ayub said. Trustees should also be physically present. This means scheduling campus visits and sitting in during parent-teacher association meetings – not to monopolize people’s time, but to be available as a resource, he said. This is in addition to being available via phone and email, he added.
On funding sources: Ayub said to keep taxes from rising, the district needs to complete every project on time and under budget. The trustees can look into state and federal grants for additional funding.
Ayub also pointed to several awards the district won based on its performance during his tenure.
In 2019, SISD won the H-E-B Excellence in Education award in large school districts and received $100,000. In 2017 SISD received $20,000 after the then-superintendent took first place in the national Best in Education awards. In 2015 the board of trustees was named for the first time a Texas Honor Board by the Texas Association of School Administrators.
On school safety: Along with procedures in place for an active shooter, one low-cost security measure could be to publish the phone number of the local police department on each campus, perhaps with signs, Ayub suggested. The district could also improve school safety technology.
In conjunction with security measures, Ayub wants to explore how to expand mental health resources for both staff and students. While SISD has trained counselors, they often have to do work outside of counseling, like setting up tests, Ayub said. He would like to see counselors focus on counseling instead.
Ayub did not receive any campaign contributions, according to his latest campaign finance report.
April 25: This story has been updated to clarify the role of the Kids First of El Paso political action committee.
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.