The 14 candidates running for the Brownsille Independent School District Board of Trustees are doing so for a variety of reasons but all express a desire to improve the quality of education BISD’s nearly 43,000 students receive. Many also express a desire to bring the salaries that BISD employees earn up to market value.
For this story, the candidates were asked to answer four questions from The Brownsville Herald: What made them decide to run, why voters should choose them, if elected what one thing would they like to accomplish, and whether they and their children attended BISD schools.
Their answers appear below. Candidates were asked to limit answers to two sentences and advised that the part of any answer that goes beyond the limit would not be published.
Voters who live within BISD boundaries will be given a ballot that includes the BISD election when voting in the Nov. 3 general election. Five seats on the board will be decided. Early voting begins Tuesday. The races for Positions 2, 3, and 7 are covered in today’s story.
Jaime Diez said he decided to run because “I love my community and I’d like contribute to its progress.” If elected, he pledged to always keep the best interest of the students, parents, and teachers of BISD in mind.
Diez said his background in science, technology, engineering and math qualify him for the position. He has a degree in mechanical engineering and is pursuing a post-graduate degree in artificial intelligence and machine learning from the University of Texas. He said he is the only candidate running with a background in STEM education.
Diez listed distance learning as his top priority. “BISD needs to develop a long-term plan to make distance learning accessible to everyone. In order to accomplish this, BISD will need to implement proper and affordable connectivity infrastructure, he wrote.
While he did not attend BISD schools, he said this would allow him to bring a fresh perspective to BISD.
Denise Garza said she decided to run out of concern the community is divided. “Our students, parents, teachers, and staff already have a lot of stress brought on by Covid, and I will work to insure our board and superintendent will do what is best and safe for all. As a parent, former employee, and community member, I am seeking the BEST for our district and community.”
She said 19 years of work experience in public education qualify her for the position, along with “knowing first-hand the day to day operations that make our departments and campuses function.” She added she is active in the community, being part of various organizations.
Her top priority would be re-evaluating the Special Services Department “to make sure our department is properly staffed to provide our children with the proper accommodations based on their IEP (Individual Education Plan,)” she wrote.
Garza attended Morningside Elementary, Perkins Middle School and Rivera High School. She has two daughters. The oldest graduated in 2019 from Veterans Memorial Early College High School and is attending the University of Incarnate Word. The youngest is a sophomore at VMECHS.
Frankie Olivo said he is running because “our district has failed to adhere to our employees’ and community’s concerns regarding safety” during the COVID-19 pandemic. He said he would work to bring in medical professionals “to suggest proper protocol for returning to campuses.”
Olivo said he has a major in history and government in secondary education and is a proud graduate of Leadership Brownsville Class XXXI.
Olivo said having a background in education he would “continue to be a vocal advocate for our district employees receiving above market raises and making sure our special education students and department have the resources available to guarantee a path towards graduation.”
Olivo is a product of BISD, having grown up at the Rockwell Apartments on Shidler Drive. He attended Perez Elementary, Oliveira Middle School and Hanna High School.
Philip T. Cowen, an attorney and customs broker, said he is seeking re-election to help the children of Brownsville. He noted that BISD is an “A” rated school system, saying that doesn’t happen by chance and that Brownsville needs the type of leadership he has provided during 10 years of service. “I am ready to continue to provide the quality leadership needed now.”
Cowen said during his 10 years on the board from 1986-1989, 1992-1995 and 2016-present, he helped build several schools during the 1980s and 1990s. Since 2016 he has “pushed forward a comprehensive upgrading program to fix our schools” currently underway. “I ask the voters to compare my qualifications with any of the candidates running against me. I am ready to continue the work I have been doing.”
He stated that “above all else, I want to make certain that any student who attends BISD and/or graduates from BISD will be able to compete with any other student anywhere else in the United States. We owe our children a very high level of education; I will make sure our children receive this type of quality education so they are able to achieve their dreams.”
Cowen attended BISD when it was called Brownsville Consolidated Independent School System. He said nine of his brothers and sisters attended BISD, as did all four of his children and almost all of his nieces and nephews.
Jessica G. Gonzalez said she has been “an active vocal parent volunteer for 10 years” and has had the honor to sit on different committees, “so I’ve seen firsthand the lack of communication at all levels of the district. It is time for a different perspective on the board, one with a focus on the families and voiceless as well.”
Gonzalez said before deciding to be a stay-at-home mom she spent years in leadership positions in the retail sector. Of her candidacy she said her retail experience “and my years of volunteering for the district gave me experience in bringing people together for a common cause, here it would be to bring the district forward.”
She said she hopes to be a voice for the community so that “there is no excuse for people to be in the dark on the actions of the district. I’d like to make sure everyone is informed on what the district is doing and/or working on in a timely effective manner so the community will have time to ask questions or voice your concerns before a final decision is made.”
Gonzalez attended Palm Grove and Garza elementary schools, Perkins Middle School and Rivera High School. Her oldest is a graduate of Porter High School and is at the University of Texas San Antonio obtaining her master’s in sociology. Her son is a junior at Porter, she has a special needs child who is a 7th grader at Faulk Middle School and her youngest is a 4th grader at Sharp Elementary.
Viro Cardenas released a statement saying that “a school board must be responsive and receptive to parents, staff, students and the community at large, encouraging an open dialogue without fear of retaliation. The board must take input from all groups and weigh all the facts before making a decision.”
The statement criticized the district’s response to COVID-19, saying BISD needs better leadership to avoid lurching “from crisis to crisis, like a ship without a rudder.”
“I strongly believe that we have tremendous teachers and staff working with our children,” the statement also said. “We must re-establish morale amongst all district employees, and work to return harmony throughout the district.”
The statement concluded by saying it was “time to restore our school district.”
Argelia Miller, a retired BISD employee, and member of the U.S. Air Force said she is ready to serve her community.
She cited her Air Force service, said she has an “unofficial master’s” in business administration and “believes in ethics, transparency, communication and above all service; being retired will allow me to volunteer one hundred percent to serve my community.”
If elected, she said she would bring employee compensation back to the table to help BISD avoid laying off employees, and would provide “a safe working environment to our students and employees.”
Miller said she attended public schools, her children attend BISD schools and she is “very proud to be part of BISD parental involvement in Yturria Elementary and Porter ECHS.”
Carlos Elizondo, who was defeated for re-election in 2018, said he decided to seek a second term on the board “because I care about the education of our youth and I care about the future of our community. During my first term as a board member, we accomplished a lot and left some unfinished projects that I would like to see completed (Performing Arts Center).”
Elizondo, a former Brownsville fire chief, has two pending third-degree felony charges for theft of property less than $20,000 by a public servant and misapplication fiduciary/financial property, court records show. Each offense carries a penalty of between two and 10 years in state custody, as well as up to a $10,000 fine.
He is charged in two separate indictments. The 13th Court of Appeals in November 2019 upheld the 107th state Judicial District Court’s decision to deny a writ of habeas corpus seeking dismissal on double jeopardy grounds. Elizondo did not respond to a request for comment on the charges. He has previously maintained his innocence.
He listed experience as his main qualification, saying he is the parent of a BISD student and spouse of a BISD employee who “understands the challenges and needs of BISD as an organization that serves the students and its employees.”
Regarding goals, he stated: “During my first term in office, our team of trustees accomplished significant goals in the area of academics, facilities, and overall district improvement. However, on this the term, I would do whatever I can to build back the morale of employees by listening and treating them with the utmost respect and care.”
Elizondo graduated Hanna in 1990 and attended Oliviera Middle School and Perez Elementary. His three daughters attended or are attending BISD Schools. His youngest daughter is currently enrolled at Vela Middle School.
Eddie Garcia, a retired Brownsville police officer, was appointed earlier this year to fill the vacancy created when Erasmo Castro resigned. He said he has “seen first-hand that our school district needs direction and accountability.”
He cited his service on similar boards that deal with local, state and federal funds as among his qualifications. The boards include a community health center and a federal credit union, he said.
Garcia listed fair compensation for BISD employees and curriculum issues as primary goals if elected. “We need to be fiscally responsible and have uniformity in the curriculum in the entire district,” he wrote.
He said he and his family are products of BISD. His wife retired as a BISD teacher after 29 years of service.