The selection of El Paso Independent School District’s new board president was the only unanimous decision trustees reached June 15 when they chose new officers. The seven-member body all backed Al Velarde, who also cast a ballot in his favor.
First elected to the board in 2015, Velarde is the chief executive officer of the Paso del Norte Children’s Development Center. He is the most senior trustee on a board where the rest of the members have served two years or less.
The board has multiple challenges ahead, including rebuilding its reputation after a series of controversies stemming from former Superintendent Juan Cabrera’s controversial tenure. More immediately, it must hire a permanent superintendent. It’s only at the beginning of its search, and has yet to open applications for the position.
Board officers are selected every two years, though they often hold the position for multiple years.
The presidency is more than ceremonial and can be a powerful position. The president works closely with the superintendent to create meeting agendas, runs meetings and serves as the board spokesperson.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
El Paso Matters: What do you see as the role of school board president?
Velarde: One of the things I think is most important at this juncture is we need some strong leadership, and I believe I possess the leadership capacity. We’re coming off a period where EPISD again found itself in a problem and we have to gain some public trust. I think the way you do that is through strong leadership.
El Paso Matters: How will your leadership style differ from previous presidents?
Velarde: There’s always been a strong superintendent-board president relationship. But that relationship didn’t go beyond that.
Instead of just me sitting down with the superintendent to review an agenda, I’m going to ask that the three officers (Velarde, Vice President Daniel Call and Secretary Leah Hanany) sit down together … so that (if) we have different opinions or viewpoints, we can talk about that before we go into a meeting with action items.
In the past, the officers really have been titles only. Now, I want some more responsibility from the officers.
El Paso Matters: Do you view the current board as one that is divided or united?
Velarde: I think we’re a board that has a lot of potential to become united. Based on my experience, we have a better opportunity today to gel than we have in the past. But it requires everybody to step up to the plate and accept that we need to focus on the kids and put political affiliation aside.
El Paso Matters: You’ve mentioned you want to bring back board committees, like facilities, finance and administration, policy, and curriculum and instruction, which the previous president did away with in early 2020. Why are these needed?
Velarde: At a board meeting, what I don’t want to happen is that we return to an age where we start at 5 pm and end up going to 1 a.m. We’re wasting our time. Committees are very helpful in being able to discuss in detail different things that are going to be questionable or will be questioned on an agenda at a board meeting.
(Committee meetings were) discontinued primarily because there were a lot of meetings and it takes significant staff time. The thought was, “let’s get rid of committees and we’ll just address it at a board meeting.” It was a terrible mistake. I think the consensus is that the board wants to see them come back as well.
My greatest concern is that at board meetings we have completely lost what we’re there for, and that is student education (and) improving that, making it the best that we can. We’re spending far too much time on audits, on procurements, on dollars for this, dollars for that and we have sacrificed discussing student learning.
El Paso Matters: How can the board become more effective in its oversight of district operations without crossing into administrative roles?
Velarde: We need to ask the right questions. We’re going to need to ask them in committee (meetings). And then we need to work with staff and let them know what our expectations are. And when I say staff, it’s the superintendent and the leadership team. They need to know what it is that we are looking for from them. That’s what’s going to result in better governance.
Sometimes that means you have to have either a superintendent or someone in leadership to say, “we have a problem, we have identified it, board you need to know that it occurred,” instead of waiting until it comes up and then we get the calls (from media). It’s communication and it’s trust. When this new superintendent comes on board, we have to establish a trust between him or her and all the board members.
Correction: This story was updated to clarify that EPISD board officers are elected every two years.
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, with stops in Austin, the Rio Grande Valley and now El Paso. She can be reached at email@example.com or 915-247-8857.