The races for three area school board seats are heating up as early voting for the June 10 runoff election comes to a close Tuesday.
The ballot includes two El Paso Independent School District trustee seats and one seat on the Ysleta Independent School District board. No candidate in those races earned enough votes to win the May 6 election outright.
Alex Cuellar, an assistant El Paso County attorney, and Will Veliz, a Rrealtor, are facing off to see who will represent District 2, the Burges-Jefferson feeder pattern, on the EPISD board. School teacher Jacqueline Martinez and stay-at-home mom Valerie Ganelon Beals are vying for the District 6 seat on the EPISD board to represent the Franklin High School area. In the Ysleta High School area race, former educator Deborah “Debbie” Torres and political consultant Chris Hernandez are running to represent District 6 on the YISD board.
EPISD District 2
Both Cuellar and Veliz said they have been block walking and encouraging people to vote in a runoff election that’s expected to have lower turnouts. As of June 4, 1,775 people cast their ballots for the runoff.
Veliz said he has spent some of his time campaigning addressing “attacks” from his opponent.
“His attacks have just been unsubstantiated lies … (He’s saying) that I’m bought out by big money, which is not the case at all. I’m doing this for my daughter. I’m doing this for my community,” Veliz said.
In terms of “big money,” Cuellar said he was referring to the political action committee Kids First of El Paso — funded largely by contributions from El Paso business leaders Woody Hunt and Richard Castro.
“There’s no doubt that those three individuals have done a lot of good for El Paso. However, if you look at where the money is going, that is the same money that brought in IDEA charter schools. That same money is the reason that we’re losing some of our students from EPISD to those charter schools,” Cuellar said.
Castro and Hunt serve as the chair and vice chair for the Council on Regional Economic Expansion and Educational Development, or CREEED. The non-profit donates to both traditional school districts and charter schools in hopes of improving student performance in El Paso.
Veliz said the majority of his backing has come from the community and other realtors who support his interest in lowering property taxes.
Veliz also drew ire from some voters after his campaign shared a photo from his 2019 bid for City Council of him with former El Paso County Democratic Party Chairwoman Queta Fierro.
Fierro said she supported Veliz when he ran for City Council, but is now backing Cuellar in the EPISD school board race.
“I don’t want people to get the wrong idea. I am supporting Alex,” Fierro said.
A filing report from Kids First shows it is supporting Veliz and Beals. The PAC had previously spent over $29,250 with VMP Political Strategies to support the candidates it favored in the May 6 election.
Veliz’s latest campaign finance reports, published June 2, show he spent $860 on advertising between April 27 and May 31 and did not raise any additional funds.
Cuellar’s reports show he raised close to $9,200 in donations during that time frame. This includes $250 from Amy O’Rourke, $500 from Georgina Williams and $2,100 from the American Federation of Teachers. He also received more than $2,000 in in-kind contributions from the Texas State Teachers Association PAC for printing and mailing postcards.
Cuellar’s report also shows he spent more than $4,600 on the campaign. This includes about $2,225 in direct payments to canvassers and block walkers, $280 in food and drinks, nearly $900 for advertising and just under $300 for transportation expenses.
EPISD District 6
On the West Side, Martinez and Beals’ race has become a battle of political opposites, with the latter championing progressive values and the other focusing on fiscal conservatism.
In one of Beals’ latest text message advertisements, her campaign tied Martinez to Proposition K, the controversial Climate Charter on the city of El Paso’s May 6 ballot which was rejected by voters in a landslide.
“She was also very open about voting yes for Prop K and I think that shows what kind of person she is and how she handles financial situations,” Beals said. “Coming from a conservative person, I know that we are paying a lot of taxes and El Paso has one of the highest property taxes in all of Texas and it just kind of shows the kind of people that we are. I voted no for Prop K; she voted yes.”
Martinez said that she supported Prop K but argues it’s not relevant to the position on the school board.
“I understand that it’s a tactic on their part to get voters to not vote for me, but I will say that it has absolutely nothing to do with education. I am the candidate who has 13 years of boots on the ground experience teaching. I understand how policy plays out in the classroom, and how it directly impacts students, and that is something that my opponent does not have,” Martinez said.
Since the May 6 uniform election, Martinez gained support from both teachers’ unions: the El Paso Teachers Association and the El Paso American Federation of Teachers. Justicia Fronteriza, a progressive activist-led social justice PAC, also shared its support for the candidate through social media.
Beals said she has not gained any new major supporters or endorsements since the May election.
Between April 27 and May 31, Martinez received nearly $4,530 in political contributions, according to her latest campaign finance reports. This includes $2,500 from the El Paso American Federation of Teachers and $500 from Georgina Williams.
She also received $200 from Mandi Jung, a teacher in Saint Paul, Minnesota, with a prominent TikTok following and a number of small contributions from Virginia, Louisiana, New Mexico and California.
The report shows Martinez spent $2,490 on printing and advertising.
Beals’ report shows her campaign did not raise or spend any money during that same time frame.
YISD District 6
In the YISD race, Torres and Hernandez are vying to see who will replace incumbent Sotero Ramirez, who received the least votes during the May election.
Hernandez said he expects the upcoming election to be neck and neck as only 27 votes separated the two candidates on May 6.
“She has a lot more people helping her. I’m pretty much by myself, but I feel good about the work I’ve done also,” Hernandez said. “It just seems like it’s gonna be a close race. And you know, anything could happen on election day. It feels like I’m gonna win, but it always feels that way to the candidate.”
Throughout his campaign, Hernandez put an emphasis on reducing spending. In a questionnaire by El Paso Matters, he said the district needs to make $10.5 million in cuts “so that expenditures don’t exceed revenue.” He also said he wanted to look into making cuts to the budget department’s spending and salary budgets.
Hernandez said this had led Torres to spread “misinformation” about him in a campaign flyer claiming he wanted to slash the district’s funding.
“We need to reduce our spending, unnecessary spending, which is quite different than slashing funding,” Hernandez said. “My number one priority is enrollment. Of course, if our enrollment goes up our state funding goes up.”
Torres said the flyer took a direct quote about the $10.5 million in budget cuts from the El Paso Matters’ voter guide questionnaire.
“In addition, that number of $10.5 million is the exact figure in the YISD budget for teacher salaries. So I’m not sure what he’s thinking. If we want to keep the district with a rating and we are the highest-rated district in the city. Then we need to make sure that we keep the good teachers we have,” Torres said.
Both candidates said they have been raising awareness about the runoff and encouraging people to vote.
“Many times, runoffs get a very low turnout because lots of times folks say ‘I’ve already gone to vote once and it won’t matter’ or comments like that,” Torres said. “But it does very much matter. … We need to keep in mind the importance of having responsible trustees on the board who will understand their mission and will take it seriously and keep a watchful eye on the spending.”
Torres’ campaign reports show she raised about $2,380 in political contributions between April 27 and May 31. This includes a $500 donation from Kathleen Downey and $1,780 in-kind contributions from the Texas State Teachers Association PAC for advertising. She also spent about $440 on printing expenses.
Hernandez’s reports show he raised $1,430 during that same time frame. This includes a $1,000 donation from the Texas Association of REALTORS PAC.
The report shows he spent about $2,940, including $980 in direct payments to canvassers and $1,900 for advertising.