With a surge in early voters compared to four years ago, the Progress Times reached out to the 10 candidates in the three slates vying for four seats in the La Joya School Board.
Newcomers Anselmo Barrera (Place 4) and Oscar “Rito” Martinez (Place 6) make up the “Education First” slate. They face off against the “Team L1berty” slate, which is made up of nurse Claudia Ochoa (Place 4), city of Peñitas council member Armin Garza (Place 5), incumbent Oscar “Coach” Salinas (Place 6) and business owner Alex Cantu (Place 7).
The final slate is composed of recently appointed board member Laura Avendaño (Place 4), incumbent Espie Ochoa (Place 5), former board member Mingo Villarreal Jr. (Place 6) and Palmview Councilwoman Gracie Flores.
Childhood friends Anselmo Barrera and Oscar “Rito” Martinez are running for Place 4 and 6 respectively. The duo from Palmview are running in the “Education First” slate and are prioritizing the education of the students and earning back the public’s trust in the district.
“We want to restore the credibility of the district,” Barrera said, referencing the recent scandals that have plagued the school district in the last few months (including the recent arrest of school board member Juan Jose “J.J.” Garza.) “We want La Joya to be a district where whenever someone does a Google search on the school district, the top results are accomplishments from students and staff.”
The duo said one advantage they have over their opponents in the other two slates is a lack of political ties to the district. According to the candidates, the La Joya school district is in need of transparency as they’ve noticed several instances of cronyism around campus. According to the slate, too many people are being hired in the district because of connections with the people in charge. Barrera and Martinez said if elected, they would combat this by hiring the most qualified people instead of the employees with the best connections.
The duo believes their slate is the right one for the district to have a new start.
“We’re running because we can make a change and we’re not looking for personal gain,” Martinez said. “We want to send a message to the community that they don’t need to be represented by a political group to see things get done. They can be like us and take a stand to try to change what they see.”
The candidates also discussed an idea to introduce a new learning academy for elementary and middle school students who are performing above average in class. This way, teachers can focus on poor performing students in need of more focus while the high performing students district wide can be challenged at their own level in that academy.
Team L1berty is composed of four individuals: Claudia Ochoa (Place 4), Armin Garza (Place 5) Oscar “Coach” Salinas (Place 6) and Alex Cantu (Place 7).
Even though the four have diverse backgrounds, the slate said they are united by their common goal to improve the education of all La Joya ISD students and to compensate district employees.
“I have three kids in the school district and what I want for them is the same as what I want for all the children in the district,” Ochoa said. “I’ve been looking after my own children and now I’ll continue looking after everyone’s.”
To do this, Ochoa plans to improve and maintain current school programs the district is using and encourage parental involvement. She also sees a need in rewarding the people responsible for educating the students—teachers.
“We can have the fanciest schools but we need to also have the best teachers,” Ochoa, a nurse at the Women’s Hospital at Renaissance, said. “We’d have to look at the possibility of increasing teacher salaries to give them a competitive edge over other districts and compensating them when we can.”
Armin Garza, who’s served as a council member for the city of Peñitas, says his past as a district employee presents him with a unique perspective he plans to take advantage of if elected.
“As someone who worked in La Joya ISD and has kids that attend their schools, I know the needs that need to be addressed,” he said. “We need to make changes to the district that address teacher retention and overpopulation in school that will make the district run efficiently. As someone who knows what teachers and students are asking for and need, I can do just that.”
Garza said the district needs competitive pay for teachers if they want to retain their educators. He also said he can provide fresh ideas to the district, something his running mate “Coach” Salinas is open to.
Salinas was first elected to the board in 2012 and said if reelected, he’d like to “stay within the flow” of what the board established.
“Since 2012, we’ve seen pay raises across the district,” he said. “Hourly wages for custodians and other auxiliary employees increased by $4 in those four years and teachers have also seen a pay increase. It’s important that we give our teachers competitive pay, but we as a board should not let the people who feed and drive the students get left behind.”
Salinas, a former mayor pro-tem for the city of Sullivan, said the district needs to continue providing benefits to the district employees while making sure the school has updated technology and equipment.
“We take pride in our schools and we have to be there for the community,” he said. “If we want our students to be the best, we need to also focus on the people working in school who are charged with educating them.”
Alex Cantu, owner of the Peñitas preschool Children’s Education Station, said the “Team L1berty” slate is providing transparency through community involvement. According to Cantu, if more parents are involved in school and attend more board meetings, they’ll have a better chance of understanding what is happening in the district.
“If parents were more involved in schools, not only would they have better knowledge of how the school is running, but they’d be available to be there for their children,” Cantu explained.
Cantu, whose parents were auxiliary workers for the La Joya school district, said this family background means he stands with school maintenance workers and wants them to receive as much incentives as teachers do in order to show appreciation for their work.
Like his running mate Armin Garza, Cantu believes his background provides a better understanding of the needs of the district.
“I have children who attend schools at La Joya and was employed there for a time,” Cantu explained. “I saw the needs teachers and students had and I still see it from children and parents associated with my preschool. Everything I see they need can be brought by people with fresh ideas and this slate can provide that.”
Cantu said his background in business would come in handy if elected as he can use skills learned there to ensure the board is running smoothly.
‘Honesty and Integrity’
Another slate in the running—the “Integrity” slate—is composed of Laura Avendaño (Place 4,) Esperanza “Espie” Ochoa (Place 5,) Mingo Villarreal Jr. (Place 6) and Gracie Flores (Place 7.)
The four are campaigning under the promise of providing “honesty, integrity and hard work to the district if elected.”
Ochoa is the only incumbent candidate on the slate seeking reelection. She said she wants to build upon what she’s been involved in for the last nine years as a board member.
“Our main purpose is to be there for our students and to advocate for them,” she said. “We as a board are policy makers but we need to be attentive to the needs of not only the students and staff, but the community as a whole.”
If reelected, Ochoa said she’d focus on children’s education starting with pre-kindergarten students. To do this, Ochoa plans to hire more paraprofessionals—an educational assistant for pre-kindergarten teachers.
According to Ochoa, the district only has a handful of paraprofessionals that all schools share.
“If we had one in every class, those paraprofessionals could enhance targeted learning and work with students in groups to assess them and assist in closing the educational gap to better prepare them as students,” she said.
Ochoa also said her slate is also focusing on bringing prayer back to school and during school board meetings.
Villarreal Jr., who served as a school district board member for two terms in the 1990s, believes in prayer in school as well.
“Of course we’d discuss this with the board as a whole, but we just think having at least a moment of silence or an invocation at the start of every school board meeting would serve as a sign of respect for the community,” he said, adding that the rest of his running mates agree with prayer in school.
Villarreal has served as the coordinator for Hidalgo County Precinct 3 for three decades. He said this gives him an advantage against his opponents because of the experience that role has given him.
“Between the two terms I served for the school district in the 1990s and the 30 years serving the county, I know I have the experience to ensure what’s implemented will be done correctly,” he said. “When I was a school board member, we were in the growing process and built several elementary and middle schools. As a slate we’d need to see that kind of growth for the district and we can implement that.”
Running mate Gracie Flores has served as the first woman to be elected to the City of Palmview city council. After serving as councilwoman for 20 years, she decided not to seek reelection to the council, but to serve on the school board instead.
“At first I wasn’t going to run and was just going to retire to spend time with my family, but then I noticed too many salary increases in the district I don’t agree with,” she said. “We need to take a look at that budget and invest it wisely.”
Ochoa said her platform of being fiscally conservative is ultimately one that will benefit the district, as she wants as much money as possible to be invested in the students.
“The students come first and we need to serve them as well as parents,” she said. “We need to fix or replace any school utility vehicles that need it and also do some sort of outreach with students and parents to get parents involved in what their child is doing and strategize with them to see what they need to be better served.”
Avendaño declined to interview for this story.