Challengers sweep incumbents in McAllen ISD board races

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McAllen ISD Erica De La Garza-Lopez at Gonzalez Elementary on Saturday, May 6, 2023. (Monitor Photo)

McALLEN — Schools here will see a whopping four new trustees on the McAllen ISD board after Saturday’s election.

It’s a significant shift; only three sitting trustees — a minority — will continue to hold seats on the board.

Based on unofficial election results, Place 1 challenger Lizzie Kittleman and Place 5 challenger Erica De La Garza-Lopez beat incumbents Marco Suarez and Tony Forina by about 10% and 8% of the vote, respectively.

Aaron Daniel Rivera carried a commanding lead over fellow newcomer Rojelio Aleman II, with almost 80% of the vote for Danny Vela’s undefended Place 5 seat.

Lucia Regalado, meanwhile, claimed Conrado “Ito” Alvarado’s undefended Place 2 seat. Kittleman, appearing jubilant and just a little bit stunned by the victory at a watch party at University Draft House, thanked a crowd of supporters a little after 9 p.m. Saturday.

“Thank you for trusting me with this position. Thank you for trusting me with your vote. And — let’s do this,” she said before calling for a round of shots.

Kittleman also thanked sitting trustees Debbie Crane-Aliseda, Danny Vela and Sam Saldivar — who were present and looking equally jubilant — for discreetly supporting her campaign.

There was a large crowd but no victory speeches at Koko’s Mexican Restaurant, where Forina and Suarez were shortly after Kittleman’s speech.

McAllen ISD candidate Marco Suarez at Gonzalez Elementary in McAllen on Saturday, May 6, 2023. (Monitor Photo)

“Our community recently made the decision to go in a different direction, and although it was unexpected, I respect their decision,” Suarez wrote in a statement that expressed gratitude for his time on the board. “However, I am confident that our new leadership is more than capable of continuing the district’s legacy of excellence. They will need all of us to support them in their efforts, and I am committed to doing so.”

Forina noted the district’s successes and thanked supporters in his statement.

“To my fellow trustees, we did not agree on every point and I can appreciate the effort we each put in,” he wrote. “Good luck. To our new trustees, best of luck, you’re entrusted with a high performing district and a great team.”

Down the street, De La Garza-Lopez celebrated at a smaller affair with a handful of friends and family.

“Our community has shown that our school district is ready to be reinvigorated,” she wrote in a statement. “We need to bring fiscal responsibility back to the forefront. I am ready to focus on MISD employees and students with a united front. This new board has our work cut out for us, and we are ready. Thank You, McAllen.”

Aleman and Rivera both complimented each other once Rivera’s win looked sure. Rivera gave a victory speech at the annex of Rivera Funeral Home around 10 p.m.

McAllen ISD candidate Aaron Daniel Rivera seen campaigning in McAllen on Saturday, May 6, 2023. (Monitor Photo)

“I’m just humbled by the result and looking forward to working with the community and doing what’s right with the district and continuing to be successful,” he told The Monitor.

Regalado, whose win has been in the bag since February, said she’s excited to get to work with the district’s board and superintendent.

“My sincere congratulations go out to the winners of today’s races as well as a heartfelt thank you to the rest of the candidates. Win or lose, we are all united by a shared passion for our community and the selflessness required to turn that passion into action,” she wrote in a statement.

Finances and employee pay tended to be dominant themes of the race. Incumbents stressed the district’s successes; challengers focused on improving things at the district, generally for employees.

Turnout, candidates agreed, was disappointingly low. Many attributed it to the lack of vigorous campaigns in the city commission elections.

Others at the polls noted inclement weather during early voting and South Texas College graduations.

“A lot of people weren’t aware, somehow, that there is a McAllen school board election,” Kittleman said.

McAllen ISD Rojelio Aleman II at Fireman’s Park in McAllen on Saturday, May 6, 2023. (Monitor Photo)

The candidates took the race decidedly seriously.

All of them — even Regalado — made appearances at polling places Saturday, largely the loop between Lark Community Center, Gonzalez Elementary and Fireman’s Park.

Dialogue between candidates appeared to stay cordial, though there were occasional spats among supporters, largely on social media.

Most candidates fundraised fairly aggressively, based on campaign finance reports.

Rivera poured money into his campaign and dwarfed Aleman in earlier contributions, though Aleman’s campaign picked up steam later in the race.

“Phone call after phone call. I ran out of contacts, started going through Facebook and through Instagram and using those channels to try and encourage people to come out and vote,” said Rivera, who said he planned to focus on transparency and communication at the district, and to ensure a healthy “culture.”

Opponent Aleman also emphasized transparency, along with safety.

Suarez appeared to out-raise Kittleman and ran a more complex campaign, though she assembled a tidy purse of money to draw from with several notable names attached.

McAllen ISD candidate Tony Forina at Fireman’s Park in McAllen on Saturday, May 6, 2023. (Monitor Photo)

Support in Forina and De La Garza-Lopez’s race was more difficult to judge. That race was a rematch from eight years ago, when Forina beat De La Garza-Lopez and the bond she supported for a seat on the board. Forina successfully built up a fairly robust war chest from contributors this election; De La Garza-Lopez almost entirely self-funded her campaign, saying she hoped to see support from past backers and teachers.

Forina was confident of reelection before early voting numbers came in Saturday; De La Garza-Lopez was only hopeful.

“Teachers have really stepped up and come forward about the issues that they’re facing, not only about salaries, but about working conditions,” she said. “And we’ve really seen an increase in teacher turnout more so than ever.”

Last year an employee survey indicated a decrease in faith in district leadership, largely tied to pay.

The McAllen American Federation of Teachers, which backed both Forina and Suarez in their last elections, snubbed the candidates this time around and supported newcomers — though neither incumbent viewed that as a deciding factor.

“As much as we’d like to have it, it wasn’t in our favor this year and we totally understand,” Forina said.

Suarez, who noted he’d won before without an AFT endorsement, said he didn’t view it as a reelection killer.

“I think it’s a message sent, but I think that that particular organization is run by a small group of the people that represent it,” he said.

A scandal out of the district’s communications department that broke during election season tended to linger around the periphery of the campaigns. Sitting trustees voted unanimously last month to mandate a list of directives for Superintendent J.A. Gonzalez to pursue based at least in part on that situation.

Forina and Suarez have been stalwart supporters of Gonzalez. De La Garza-Lopez, notably, has raised concerns over leadership, specifically over potential teacher reassignments.

“All of that really starts at the top,” she said Saturday. “Teachers need to feel comfortable in their working environment, and I think that starts at the top. The superintendent really needs to address that head-on.”

Find the complete, unofficial election results of races across the Rio Grande Valley here.