San Benito sweeps in new school board; winners put up united front

The San Benito Consolidated Independent School District John F. Barron Administration building is pictured Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023, in San Benito. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)
Only have a minute? Listen instead
Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

San Benito’s new school board is putting up a united front after voters swept in a slate of candidates in landslide victories.

In Saturday’s city’s election, Joe Navarro carried much of the commission’s support to narrowly defeat former longtime Commissioner Rene Villafranco in the race for past Commissioner Carol Lynn Sanchez’s Place 4 seat more than a month after commissioners ousted her from office after she moved out of town.

Meanwhile, in Harlingen’s lone contested school board race, Bobby Muniz pulled 73.6% of the vote to defeat Benjamin Esquivel.

In San Benito, the election launched a new school board boasting a clear majority following the defeats of longtime trustees Oscar Medrano and Mario Silvia.

“We’ve been waiting for this moment,” school board President Orlando Lopez said Tuesday, referring to the new school board. “It’s a long time coming. It’s a huge win for our kids, our staff and our community. I want to congratulate the newly elected board members, and more importantly, I look forward to working with a united board.”

In the election’s hottest race, Ariel Cruz-Vela, a pharmacist who serves as the board’s vice president, pulled 1,756 votes, or 62.6%, to win her second term in office, defeating past Superintendent Theresa Servellon, a former longtime district administrator who drew 1,048 votes.

“Thanks to the San Benito voters for putting their trust in me for three more years,” Cruz-Vela said Tuesday. “I will work hard to live up to that.”

In 2021, Cruz-Vela won the board’s Place 1 seat, becoming a strong voice on the panel.

“I always said I was going to work for the best interest of the district and what’s in the best interest of our students and staff,” she said in an interview, adding newly elected board members Crystal Hernandez and Israel “Buddy” Villarreal bring new perspectives to the panel.

“Crystal is in the classroom so she knows what’s going on in any campus and she knows what San Benito needs to prepare our students,” she said. “Israel and myself have left the Valley and we know that San Benito is on the brink of being a premier school district, not only in the RGV but in the entire state.”

On the campaign trail, the slate of candidates presented their goals before voters, Cruz-Vela said.

“We focused on our plan and the people responded with their vote,” she said. “We want to build a strong educational foundation starting with pre-school and we want to make sure our students are college, career and military ready. We want to make sure our curriculum is rigorous and we want to hear from parents as far as what the students need.”

Topping her list was launching a search for the district’s next superintendent.

“We’re going to find the next leader of our school district,” she said. “As soon as that’s in place, we’re going to develop a five-year strategic plan so that all our stakeholders in the district are aware of our goals.”

In a crowded race for the board’s Place 2 seat, Hernandez, the Harlingen school district’s GEAR Up facilitator overseeing students’ college and career awareness program, won 1,550 votes, or 55%, to defeat Silva, a sales representative who served as a longtime member of the board’s previous majority who drew 1,058 votes, and former trustee Victor Eloy Rosas, a retired firefighter who picked up 209 votes.

“I’m very happy and very thankful for the citizens who put their trust in me,” Hernandez said in an interview. “Just like a lot of citizens in San Benito, I’m tired of the negativity. When I saw there weren’t candidates stepping in, I wanted to make a difference.”

The slate’s landslide victory stands “as a statement that our community wanted change — and they got it,” she said.

At San Benito High School, a steady turnover at the principal’s office led many residents to vote for change, Hernandez said.

“I do know staff that works there and I know they’re tired of the instability,” she said.

From 2010 to 2019, Hernandez worked for the San Benito school district, first in the special education program and later as a high school geometry teacher.

“It’s really important we have someone on the board who’s up-to-date with education,” she said. “It’s important that we have that knowledge and experience when we’re making decisions that impact our staff, our students and our community.”

Like Cruz-Vela, launching a superintendent’s search marked her top priority along with preparing students for college and careers.

“Having a strong leader for the community is my first item I want to focus on,” she said. “I want to make sure that the rigor of our courses is at a high level so when students graduate from San Benito High School they have a competitive edge. I also want to make sure our special needs population has adequate resources and personnel.”

In the race for the board’s Place 3 seat, Villarreal won 1,668 votes, or 59.3%, to defeat longtime board member Oscar Medrano, a former member of the board’s previous majority who drew 1,145 votes.

“It’s definitely a huge win,” he said. “It was a whole team. I honestly believe they were ready for change. It’s good to get a fresh set of young, enthusiastic people in there, and that’s what we did.”

Villarreal, who retired from the Navy with the rank of lieutenant colonel after a 24-year career in which he served during the 2003 Iraqi invasion, has launched an entertainment business which has expanded into McAllen and San Antonio.

On the school board, Villarreal said he wants to jump-start his term with a search for the district’s next superintendent.

“That’s my number-one priority,” he said. “We’ve got to get it done. We’ve got to start that process immediately. The superintendent’s got to align things for the next school year. My goal is to get on par with other school districts, becoming competitive among school districts and offering curriculums that attract our current student base and move.”

In the city election’s lone contested race, Navarro defeated Villafranco in a tight contest for Sanchez’s former Place 4 seat.

While Navarro won 1,069 votes, or 52.3%, Villafrano, a leader within the commission’s past majority who lost to Commissioner Deborah Morales last year, drew 974 votes.

“I’m excited — I get to serve the community,” Navarro, a service consultant for Tipotex Chevrolet in Brownsville, said. “I don’t want to fail anybody. I was put here by the citizens to make their voice be heard.”

During the campaign, Navarro carried much of the commission’s support.

“I didn’t think it would be easy,” he said. “People made a choice. Now the board can continue moving forward. I want to try to find a way to be more transparent to the citizens. I want to be able to give them answers.”

In Place 3, Commissioner Pete Galvan ran unopposed, taking 1,683 votes on his way to his second full term after winning office in 2020.

In the Harlingen school board’s lone contested rate, Muniz, who first won election in 2014, pulled 1,270 votes, or 73.6%, to defeat Esquivel, who picked up 454 votes.

In Place 5, board member Dr. Nolan Perez, who first won office in 2010, ran unopposed, taking 1,490 votes.

In Place 6, trustee Dr. Belinda Reininger, the board’s president who first won election in 2018, also ran unopposed, drawing 1,484 votes.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct Joe Navarro’s occupation.