Ballot places drawn for May BISD special election

A view of a polling station on Election Day on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023, in Brownsville at Burns Elementary along Alton Gloor Boulevard. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)
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Marisa F. Leal has drawn the top spot on a May 4 special election ballot to determine the true winner of her disputed race in 2020 with Minerva M. Pena that went all the way to the Texas Supreme Court.

The Brownsville Independent School District Board of Trustees in December declared Pena’s seat vacant and appointed Tim Ramirez to fill it until a special election could be held to settle the November 2020 school board race between Pena and Leal.

The board’s action came after after Pena exhausted all appeals following a January 2022 trial in 107th state District Court of Leal’s lawsuit after she lost a recount of the Nov. 8, 2020 BISD Board of Trustees election to Pena by eight votes.

The Texas Supreme Court this past November declined to consider Pena’s third appeal and let stand the 107th’s decision in the case.

LEFT: Marisa F. Leal on Nov. 18, 2020 in Brownsville. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald) RIGHT: Minerva M. Peña waves to motorists on election day Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020 in Brownsville, Texas. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

Leal initially won the election by one vote. Pena asked for a recount and prevailed by eight votes, 16,552 to 16,544 for Leal and 10,575 for Joe A. Rodriguez. The vote was canvased, Pena was declared the winner and was sworn in Dec. 9, 2020 to her fourth term on the board.

Leal sued but the case didn’t go to trial until Jan 6-7, 2022, with San Patricio County state District Judge Josue Johnson presiding because under state law the challenge had to be heard by a judge outside the county where the challenged election took place.

Johnson ruled that 16 illegal votes made it impossible to determine the election’s true winner and ordered a new election for May 7, 2022.

That election never took place, in part because of the pandemic and also due to repeated delays by Pena, Leal’s attorney Gilberto Hinojosa of Brownsville said at the time.

The election is now scheduled for May 4. Leal’s name will appear first on the ballot and Pena’s second as the result of a drawing held Monday in the board room of the BISD administration building at 1900 Price Road.

After the meeting in December at which Ramirez was sworn in as temporary trustee for the Position 6 seat in which Pena had been serving, Leal and her husband Luis Leal, a teacher at Stillman Middle School for more than 30 years, said the fact the May special election will fall so close to the November 2024 General Election is Pena’s fault for having waited to the last minute before the deadline to file each of her appeals, resulting in the Supreme Court’s decision coming down later than would have been necessary.

They said BISD would have had to have the special election in any case because Pena lost at trial in the 107th and the judge ordered a special election to determine the November 2020 election’s true winner.

Except for the delay tactics, the special election would have taken place in May 2022, Hinojosa said.

After the January 2022 trial in 107th state District Court, Judge Johnson issued a finding that Hinojosa had shown by clear and convincing evidence that 16 voters cast ballots who were registered to vote at an address other than their residence, that being a commercial warehouse at 225 S. Vermillion Ave. near the Brownsville-South Padre Island International airport.

Ramirez is a retired former BISD teacher who ran for the board in 2018 and later became an advocate for the BISD community.

Whoever wins the May special election will serve until November 2024 when the seat and several others are up for reelection in school board elections to be held in conjunction with the November General Election.

The November General Election is Nov. 5.

So far, three candidates have filed for election to the BISD Board of Trustees, according to the BISD website: Farley A. Trevino, who filed Aug. 21, 2023; Victor Caballero, a former BISD principal and unsuccessful candidate for the board in the last election who filed Oct. 17, 2023; and Erasmo Castro, a former board member who resigned in early 2020. He filed Jan. 17.