Four seats are up for grabs on the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo school board as a pair of candidates will compete for each one in the November general election.
Place 4 incumbent Jorge L. Zambrano will face challenger Heather Garza for his seat, while Jesus A. “Jesse” Zambrano will defend his Place 2 seat against Ruben Guajardo Jr.
Two newcomers, Celso Salinas and Cynthia A. Gutierrez, will vie for Place 7, which incumbent Jesus “Jesse” Vela Jr. has left undefended.
Vela filed to run against Place 6 incumbent Victor Perez, who is aiming to keep his post.
Incumbent Jorge L. Zambrano will attempt to defeat Heather Garza and retain his seat in the November election.
Zambrano, 32, is a Texas realtor and business owner who lives in San Juan.
A good deal of business acumen and a unique viewpoint make Zambrano the right candidate for Place 4, he says.
“I have a business finance degree and I’m currently working on my MBA at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. I think those two components make me qualified for the position. Diversity, the fact that I’m 32 years old, my age pretty much plays an important factor in the diversity of the board,” he said.
Zambrano says he would support the current direction of the district, as well as district administration and staff, if he wins another term.
“Just last year we went through the process of hiring a new superintendent and it is very important for us to continue moving the district forward, making sure that the teachers, that the administration and the students have everything that they need to ensure that they receive the best quality of education,” he said. “We need to keep supporting the superintendent, and honestly that’s my main priority at this point.”
Zambrano’s opponent, Garza, is a 42-year-old educator at Mercedes High School.
She says her 20 years of work in education give her the tools she needs to serve on the board.
“I feel my experience and background qualifies me to be a sound candidate for school board,” she said.
The unprecedented challenges of an unprecedented year would be Garza’s focus if elected.
“Because of this pandemic that we’re currently being affected by, so many things and routines have been shifted in our educational system,” she said. “We’re being asked to do things differently and things we’ve never done and I would love to be able to support our teachers with the tools that they need and provide them with the best professional support.”
Incumbent Jesus “Jesse” Zambrano, 41 is a lawyer from San Juan.
He says his professional background, along with the four years he’s already served on the board, make him fit to be a leader of the district.
“I think that with my legal background, my business background — a lot of the decisions we make at the board have to do with high level decisions and I feel that my background helps,” he said. “We have a $400-plus million budget, so a lot of the decisions that are made you have to make sure that you put a lot of thought into it.”
If the voters give Zambrano another term, he says he’ll keep working on policies he’s currently supporting on the board.
“We’ve hired a new superintendent, he’s been there a year, and I want to continue with the progress that we’ve made so far,” he said. “Just to continue to enhance educational opportunities for our students here in the PSJA area. I think we’ve done a great job and I want to continue being a part of that.”
To do that, Zambrano will have to beat Ruben Guajardo Jr. at the polls.
Guajardo, 47, is from San Juan and serves as a parks and recreation director there.
“I’ve been doing community service throughout PSJA for the last 20 years. I’ve coached kids, I’ve sat on boards to help benefit the community prior to this, I’ve assisted the district in off-season activities helping in a coaching aspect,” he said. “So I’d like to make that next step to help our school district.”
Guajardo says keeping schools sanitized and safe would be a priority for him as a board member, along with helping students seek higher education.
“I’d like to expand our scholarship opportunities, not only focused on academic which is the number one priority of course, but I’d like to expand the opportunities to the UIL participants,” he said. “I’d like to create a certain department or individuals that can help promote our UIL participants, not only athletics but dance and drama and band and whatever UIL covers. To assist them in getting scholarships and going to college.”
Two current PSJA ISD board members will face off for the Place 6 post.
Attempts to speak with incumbent Victor Perez, of Alamo, for comment were unsuccessful as of press time.
His challenger, Jesus “Jesse” Vela Jr., is a 73-year-old retired educator from Alamo who currently holds the Place 6 seat.
Vela says over 40 years of working in the realm of education give him the experience he needs to continue serving as a board member.
“Obviously I’ve been on the school board for the last eight years, so when you combine my experience as an educator and as a school board member, that’s going on 48 years,” he said. “My experience has a lot to do with it, I’m very knowledgeable in public school education and education in general, I feel like I have a lot of institutional information, a lot of institutional knowledge because of my background. I’m very engaged, very involved as a school board member, at a local level obviously and at a regional, state and even federal level.”
If the voters cast their ballots his way in November, Vela says he would likely focus on transitioning back to in-person instruction during the term.
“To guide us through this pandemic, to guide us through these issues we’re experiencing, we’ve all gone virtual and this is different, it’s new. Above all, I want to return when it’s safe to return and do the same thing, to keep everybody, staff, students and the people in the community safe,” he said. “That’s going to be consistent obviously with maintaining our academic standing.”
Vela’s Place 7 chair will be contested over by Celso Salinas and Cynthia Gutierrez.
Gutierrez, 46, is a San Juan resident who serves as the Democratic Pct. 4 Chair and works as an epidemiologist for Hidalgo County.
A former teacher, Gutierrez says experience in education and public health gives her the skills needed for the position amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I worked for parental involvement as a parental trainer and I got to work with families that had many issues, especially with their children in the schools. I feel that everyone deserves a second chance, so having worked with those families gives me a sense of what we need to give those who are not focused on school opportunities to attract them and bring them to focus,” she said. “My work with the health department is very important right now, because the schools are deciding whether to open or not, and so I feel that with my education, my expertise on COVID I would be a great addition for the transitioning from virtual classroom to face-to-face.”
Gutierrez says she would be a female role model if elected to the currently all male board, and would support policies that have been supported by the Zambrano brothers and Vela, along with new health initiatives.
“There are programs and initiatives that I feel that should start at the high school or middle school level to expose our students to public health,” she said. “Right now one of the biggest challenges that we have at the health department is hiring epidemiologists or public health specialists from our area, usually they come from other states because we don’t have students from here.”
To do that, Gutierrez will have to defeat Salinas, 69, a retired school community liaison from Alamo who worked with at-risk students and dropouts at PSJA ISD.
Salinas cited previous experience on the board as his qualification for the position.
“I’ve served six years as a school board member for PSJA,” he said. “I was part of a board that was candidates for the state school board of the year at the state level, we came in fourth place. When I was with the board we built portable gyms for the kids at the elementary schools to shield them from the hot weather and the inclement weather also.”
Salinas said he would prioritize pandemic-related safety if the voters choose him in November.
“With the coronavirus right now, we’ve got to ensure their safety also. Make sure the schools are safe for them to return to the classroom once that happens. Make sure that we have the tools, make sure that the schools are protected and kept safe,” he said.
Early voting runs between Oct. 13 and Oct. 30. Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 3.