Xavier De La Torre is outpacing the average four-year tenure for a Texas superintendent. He’s been at the helm of the Ysleta Independent School District for five years now, overseeing both the rollout of $430.5 million in bond projects and a five-year plan.
De La Torre said he has no plans to leave YISD in the foreseeable future, adding there’s still plenty of work to be completed – possibly including another bond measure.
He grew up in northern California, and before coming to YISD, spent three years as superintendent at neighboring Socorro Independent School District. He was also previously the county superintendent of schools at the Santa Clara County Office of Education and the associate superintendent of human resources in the Fairfield-Suisun Unified School District.
He has a doctorate in education from the University of California, Davis.
In his five years with YISD, De La Torre has guided the district through a $430.5 million bond. Approved by voters in 2015, it includes major renovations at schools like Bel Air and Eastwood.
Eastwood High received the largest chunk of bond funding, about $96.3 million, for major renovations, which are underway. They include a new high school building to accommodate 2,200 students, updated security, renovations to older parts of the campus and updated athletic lighting and turf.
Bel Air High received about $28.6 million in funds for a new sports complex, which will include a competition and auxiliary gym. And Ysleta High received $14.3 million for a new fine arts center with practice rooms, classrooms and a dance studio.
Bond work also included the construction of a campus that combines Mission Valley Elementary and Del Valle Middle schools. The $87 million project was completed in March.
De La Torre recently sat down with El Paso Inc. at the newly reconstructed Thomas Manor Elementary School, one of the completed bond projects. He talked about the possibility of another bond proposition, the district’s biggest challenge and what keeps him up at night.
Q: In 2015, voters approved a $430.5 million bond. What’s the latest?
We’ve been aggressive and ambitious and really adhered to our four pillars: bond projects will come in on time, on budget and at the quality our students, teachers and staff need and deserve, and we will rely almost exclusively on local labor.
If you’re not moving at an aggressive pace, the cost of construction will outrun you, and you will not be able to deliver what you told people you’d deliver because you’ve fallen behind. You end up doing value engineering.
Let’s say I’m the homebuilder, and I promised you granite countertops. But because you waited, I can’t afford granite anymore, so I’m going to convince you that Formica is just as attractive. And better yet, I can make it look like marble. We have not had to do that.
Q: How far away is the bond from being completed?
We’re probably 12 months from being done with the entire bond, and there’s a possibility there may be another bond, if not this year than in the next couple years.
We’ve developed relationships with architects and general contractors and subcontractors that give me confidence that even if I go out for another bond, knowing that Socorro ISD is about to start theirs and EPISD has started theirs, that they know how we work.
We’ve spent the last four years with them, and they look forward to spending the next four, five years with us.
Q: Another bond? Where are the discussions on that?
A facility assessment has been done. The board has copies of the preliminary report, which basically says, depending on how much we want to invest, that this would be our phase 2 priorities.
We convened members from each of the seven learning communities. They’ll go through a process with a third-party neutral facilitator with no skin in the game, and they’ll ultimately come up with a list of projects they can support and promote in their community. That will happen starting in June and will run through the summer.
In August, that report from the local facility committee will go to the trustees, and they’ll study it. They will decide whether or not to move forward and call for a bond in November 2019 or if we can wait until 2020 or 2021.
They can also set it aside completely and say, ‘We’ll let you know.’
Q: You’ve been with YISD for five years. The average tenure for a Texas superintendent is about four years. How does that feel?
As a superintendent, it feels very, very good. We’ve had a very fulfilling and rewarding five years. There’s a lot to be proud of, and we’ve kept the drama to a minimum.
I look forward to the next five years. This is the last year of our five-year strategic action plan, so we need to revisit that and reflect on whether or not those priorities are still the ones this board has for our students.
Q: Do you plan to kick off a new five-year plan?
I do. One of the things that’s changed is the state’s accountability plan, so we need to go back to look at what we use for indicators and targets that demonstrate student outcomes are improving.
There are new indicators and new goals the Texas Education Agency and commissioner (Mike Morath) have set for schools throughout Texas, and they’re a little more rigorous and challenging. We’ll have to be both bold and ambitious if we want to meet those standards.
Q: What’s the most pressing challenge for Ysleta?
Funding. What’s currently happening in Austin in the legislative session, on the surface, appears to be an investment in our public school system.
When you really peel that onion apart, given our demographics, we lose funding. By demographics, I don’t mean students; those are favorable under the proposed formula — it’s the community demographics. We’re a community with declining enrollment, and we have more senior citizens. We freeze property taxes for individuals who are 65 or older. We have far more who are 65 and older in our school district than they do in, for example, the Socorro school district.
Under the proposed legislation, we’d lose about $3.5 million next year as a result of that 65 and older freeze. We won’t know until hopefully May 27 whether or not we’re $3.5 million short this year as compared to last year.
Q: Talk to us about testing. Which groups have made the most gains?
The two groups that outperform the region are English language learners and students with special needs. The other is algebra. Del Valle and Ysleta High are two top performing schools in the region, and not just at the approaches level, but at the meeting and mastering standards. We’ve increased the number of students in eighth grade who are taking the algebra end-of-course exam.
Our challenge continues to be English language arts, reading and literacy. A lot of our students come to us non-English proficient, or limited English proficient.
When I arrived, we had instructional specialists and coaches, all located at the central office. We mobilized and gave each school four dedicated instructional coaches. One is in the area of English language arts and reading and social studies. The other is in math and algebra. They also have an interventionist, who’s responsible for working with students diagnosed with dyslexia.
Q: The Texas Legislature could really change the way public schools are funded. What does Ysleta stand to gain or lose from these proposed changes?
I think it was initially presented as eliminating high school allotments. But the most important thing was when they said they were going to eliminate the Cost of Education Index. That index gave school districts like ours, ones with a lot of poverty, an understanding that it costs a lot more to educate a poor child. There were additional allocations to districts like ours.
They’re going to take basic allotment from the current $5,400 per student to $6,080. On the surface it looks very attractive. But when you start adding up all the things we used to get, it really looks like a shell game. They’re calling it an increase to the basic allotment, but it’s made up of all those things they took back.
We’re a little worried that, because of our community demographics, at best we’ll see a little more revenue. At worst, we could get less revenue than we used to get. We can likely absorb that; we can likely mitigate that. But it will make for hard decisions down the road relative to how we operate as a school district.
It’s the thing that keeps me up at night and worries me a little bit. If they give us what we’ve always gotten, or even a little more, we’ll be fine. We have a great team, and we all understand how school systems work.
I spent seven years as a chief human resources officer in California during the 2008 housing bust. I know what it’s like to do zero-based budgeting and continue to operate a school district, but I prefer not to.
Q: You were named chair of the 2019 Texas Urban Council of Superintendents. How’s that going?
We’ve all spent a lot of time down in Austin, introducing our organization, outlining our interests and expressing our concerns, and reminding them that we serve a very large percentage of the state’s most vulnerable children.
We work with a lobbyist who is very effective. We’ll find out quickly whether we carry any weight. My term starts July 1, and once that gets started, we have some ideas of what we’d like to address.
Q: Whose leadership do you admire?
My dad because of his background and how hard he worked, a football coach named Steve Kenyon, and probably the superintendent of the Elk Grove school district, Steven Ladd. He was a very intentional, deliberate superintendent. Of all the superintendents I ever worked with, he just seemed to have it together. I’m a little sillier and funnier than he was, though.
Q: What’s the state of public education in El Paso County?
I tell people it’s a little bit like a Petri dish. We’re isolated. We’re really not that diverse. El Paso to me is a hard-working, middle-class community that values education.
We get a real chance to see if we can move the needle for English learners relative to their language acquisition and their academic acquisition. It can become a little insular sometimes, and some may argue that you need ideas from other parts of the country. I’m the exposure; I’m from California.
I don’t think we get enough credit for what we’re able to accomplish. I don’t think the general public understands how well we do, given some of the circumstances some of our teachers and support staff work in. Yet we’re somehow able to reach these families.
I’d say that we probably don’t do a good enough job of promoting how well we do with our students and how we change the trajectory of so many student’s lives.
Q: You were a baseball and football coach. Do you still do any coaching or playing?
I compete every day. I compete in hopefully a positive way with surrounding districts. I play baseball on Saturday afternoons in the 50 and over league. I’m the leadoff hitter and am batting 358 at the moment, down from 497 — I had two bad games in a row.
One of my favorite things to do when I’m out visiting schools, if I land at about the time baseball or basketball practice starts, is go out and shag balls. Or I’ll ask one of the kids to throw me pitches and just hang out. I have stuff in the car. I hope the coaches don’t get irritated.
But between work and making sure I can see my kids at least once a month, I golf, poorly. But I’m getting better. I’m always suspect of superintendents who are great golfers. Because to be a great golfer you have to practice a lot, and I just don’t know where you find the time.