McAllen Rotary Club hosts school board forum

The McAllen ISD school board meeting room in the district's Administration Building on Oct. 13, 2021 in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])
Finances have been the dominant issue of forums so far, and remained central Wednesday.

Candidates for Place 1 and 2 on the McAllen ISD school board talked about issues at a forum Wednesday hosted by the McAllen Rotary Club.

Place 4 candidates — incumbent Tony Forina and challenger Erica De La Garza-Lopez — both attended the event, along with Place 2 incumbent Marco Suarez.

Suarez’s challenger, Lizzie Kittleman, did not attend and sent prepared statements.

All seven candidates running for places on the board made appearances in forums last month, and many of Wednesday’s issues have been already discussed fairly tamely.

Wednesday’s forum remained civil, though De La Garza-Lopez was noticeably more critical of the district’s finances and the way it’s being run.

Erica De La Garza-Lopez

“There’s a culture concern — it seemed for a couple of weeks there was negative news, and there does need to be some cleanup and there does need to be accountability for whatever issues were happening in our district,” she said, apparently referencing a scandal in the district’s communications department that recently came to light. “Because it is bleeding into our schools, and with our teachers and staff.”

De La Garza-Lopez made that comment in a closing statement, and incumbents didn’t have much of a chance to respond.

They did, however, emphasize throughout the forum McAllen ISD’s accomplishments during their tenure. The district has consistently scored well in state rankings and racked up some prestigious accolades for staff and leadership.

Marco Suarez

“We’re doing something right,” Suarez said, referencing positive statewide attention on the district. “Give me the opportunity to continue that for four more years.”

Likely the most interesting new ground covered by candidates came from audience questions, including one about superintendent pay.

According to Texas Education Agency data, Superintendent J.A. Gonzalez’s base pay as of October of last year was $267,300.

The average base pay for traditional districts in Hidalgo County stood at about $231,993. As of October, McAllen had an enrollment of 20,399, compared to an average of about 12,000 for non-charters in the county.

Suarez said Gonzalez’s salary is annually weighed by the board and that he’s not aware of a push to increase it greatly.

“Every year there is a review. Every year there is an evaluation that is put before us, and we as board members — as a team of seven — evaluate the superintendent based on different criteria,” he said.

Last year the board took some time to complete that evaluation.

Forina said keeping Gonzalez should be a priority, saying that he’d hope to avoid him jumping ship for a larger district and that the district is getting a good deal on an individual of Gonzalez’s caliber.

Tony Forina

“So I believe in getting paid what you’re worth. We’re talking about the 2021 state of Texas superintendent of the year. For the state of Texas. In my philosophy, we should make particular offerings to him, within reason. Within reason — and that’s the key thing,” he said.

De La Garza-Lopez proved to be more critical. She worried about amendments to Gonzalez’s compensation and said teacher pay should be a consideration in those discussions.

“There are definitely culture issues going on, and we need to really look into is it worth the money right now,” she said.

Other fresh ground included a question on conflicts of interest.

De La Garza-Lopez and Forina both said they have no financial conflicts regarding the district. De La Garza-Lopez said disclosures are important; Forina said he won’t even let his sister sub at the district.

“I’m a strong believer in ethics,” he said. “You know, working for Hidalgo County — Hidalgo County runs our elections and I refrained from that vote entirely because I don’t want to give an air of inappropriateness in any way, reflecting the school district or my involvement within the election.”

Suarez joked that the question was probably aimed at him. He acknowledged his and family members’ involvement in businesses that deal with the district, but said none of those relationships are improper or unethical.

“The state of Texas says, as long as you disclose the conflict of interest — as Ms. De La Garza said — as long as you disclose the conflict of interest, then it’s perfectly legal. I have yet to make a penny off McAllen ISD,” he said.

Finances have been the dominant issue of forums so far, and remained central Wednesday.

Forina and Suarez have tended to tout the district’s advocacy at the state level on finances and described the district’s successes in creatively meeting financial challenges.

De La Garza-Lopez has made teacher pay her tentpole issue, calling for more careful spending elsewhere.

“We already have an enrollment issue,” she said Wednesday. “We have decreases in enrollment, about 5,000 students since 2012. And so we need to make sure that our teachers are staying here. We need to have methods to bring back and to attract students who have left to other districts.”

Suarez, noting his advocacy for employees, said the district is working successfully to address that enrollment issue.

“What is not being told to you is how many people come into our district because of the programs, because of the great teachers, because of the community that we have,” he said. “And that’s an important factor.

“I can attest to being here eight years; although McAllen is not growing in numbers as surrounding districts — which is why we don’t have a lot of growth in McAllen and we don’t have a lot of growth at McAllen ISD — I can assure you that our success has had some students come over here.”


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Marco Suarez