Community

The Tentacles Of The PDNG In Education

Many readers may be aware of the Paso Del Norte Group’s (PDNG) downtown redevelopment plans and its attempt to gentrify the Segundo Barrio neighborhood. What readers may not know is that the PDNG influence over several aspects of El Paso’s public policy agenda runs deeper than downtown redevelopment. Although now defunct, the group’s influence continues to this day. Entities, like the Medical Center of the Americas (MCA), who continue the BHI vision for El Paso includes other entities, including one that affects the education of El Paso’s children.

At the center of El Paso’s public policy agenda is Woody Hunt, one of the so-called oligarchs identified in the book Who Rules El Paso? As we analyzed recently, Hunt injected himself into the water utility in 2000 and tried to control El Paso’s water supplies. In the article we analyzed how Hunt uses philanthropy and research to frame the public policy narrative to suit his needs. Each of these examples demonstrate an intent to frame the public policy agenda for the city. Several tools are used to control the public policy agenda. These include elected offices, well-placed research facilities funded by Hunt and non-profit entities positioned to be the public face of the Hunt agenda.

One such example is CommUNITY En Acción (CEA). It is an offshoot of the PDNG. Although it has an Hispanic name, its agenda is driven by financial needs rather than empowering Latinos in the community. In 2003, when the failed BHI vision was being recast as the MCA, Prestige Consulting Services, run by Gilberto Moreno, helped to create CommUNITY En Acción (CEA). Like the reframing of the BHI, CEA is the reframing of a more inclusive Latino narrative in El Paso’s public policy agenda. The Glass Beach Study forced the inclusion of Latinos into the public narrative to soften its controversial agenda to the community at large.

Moreno, who founded Prestige in March 1995, was one of the six founding members of the PDNG. He facilitated the creation of the CEA to “instill Hispanic pride, unity and leadership” in 2010. CEA addresses the Latino narrative in the public policy agenda. But to be effective, the public narrative must be instilled as early as possible to make it more malleable. It is difficult to make change. It is much easier to reinforce the narrative instead of forcing change.

The battles over the TIF districts was a lesson learned by the PDNG. Instead of forcing change they set out to take control of the public narrative through groups like the CEA, philanthropy and education. The CEA was spun off the PDNG when it shuttered. CREEED was another “task force” that was spun off as its own entity by the PDNG before it closed its doors.

CREEED

The Council on Regional Economic Expansion and Educational Development (CREEED) is an offshoot of the PDNG. It creates strategic reports and develops initiatives on education. Its Excel director is Amy O’Rourke, wife of Beto O’Rourke. CREEED was founded in 2013 with $2.7 million granted to it by the Hunt Family Foundation. In 2017, the Hunt foundation provided another $12.5 million. [1]

CREEED, by its own 2018 Five Year Plan, “was established by local businesses and community leaders in 2014 to lead efforts on increasing educational attainment and the success of students in the El Paso region.” [1] On the surface, the goal of increasing educational opportunities for El Paso children is laudable. However, the problem lies on who controls the future education of El Paso’s children.

As evidenced by the experience of the Community Scholars, education is one tool used to manage the public policy agenda of El Paso. From 1998 through 2012, Community Scholars used high school children to generate reports used to manipulate the public policy agenda of the city. One such student was Vince Perez. Among the reports was one about banking practices in El Paso that created controversy. Community Scholars used philanthropy, taxpayer funds and get-out-the-vote non-profits to mange the public policy, create the research necessary to support the public narrative and get the votes necessary to put like-minded officials into office to create the legislation needed to support the public policy agenda.

Incubating Future Political Seats

Elected officials not only need financial support while running for office but career politicians need financial incubators to sustain them when they are out of office until it is time to run for another office. An example of this is Veronica Escobar, currently the city’s congresswoman. Escobar worked for Ray Caballero in a taxpayer funded position. When Caballero lost, Escobar went to work for Community Scholars, a taxpayer-funded non-profit who was largely supported by school taxes, until she was positioned to run for a county commissioner seat from where she ran for a county judge seat from where she ran for Congress. Community Scholars not only helped to incubate Veronica Escobar, but it also provided much of the research used to frame public policy agendas. Escobar was not the only beneficiary of Community Scholars’ taxpayer funds. Vince Perez, Jose Landeros and Beto O’Rourke are connected to Community Scholars. As readers may remember, Community Scholars was created by Eliot Shapleigh, Ray Caballero and Caballero’s wife, Mary Hull Caballero.

The funding mechanism for Community Scholars was a mixture of non-profit donations and property taxes taken from the school districts under the guise of educating El Paso’s future leaders through creating research used to make public policy. Jose Landeros works at the county today in planning and Vince Perez is working on a Hunt funded get-out-the-vote project. Get out the vote projects are an important plank to managing the public policy agenda as it helps to put like-minded elected officials into office that can create the legislation to make policy into law.

Community Scholars is the blueprint used today in groups like the CEA and CREEED and Hunt’s philanthropy in community projects like Bob Moore’s El Paso Matters and research thinktanks at UTEP. At the center is Woody Hunt.

According to CREEED’s five-year plan for 2019 through 2024, it “set a goal of raising $40MM to support, talent/leadership development and parent engagement initiatives.” The plan adds that the “goal includes 50% of the total being raised locally.” [1]

To date, CREEED has raised $20 million of the $40 million goal, with a little over $15 million coming directly from Woody Hunt. As we reported in June, Debbie Nathan was fired from the Newspaper Tree in 2013 after trying to publish a report critical of how the city manipulated the ballpark votes in 2012.

Hunt funded Newspaper Tree through the El Paso Community Foundation, much like he now funds El Paso Matters. What Nathan’s experience reveals is that Hunt’s philanthropy includes conditions on what can and cannot be reported. With Hunt accounting for much of CREEED’s funding, it is fair to assume that there are conditions attached to such funding. Arguments that philanthropy is used by the rich to make public policy is supported by evidence across the nation.

The CREEED Plan

CREEED’s plan is seemingly to create better schools for El Paso. To do so, their five-year plan says they are three separate entities: CREEED, Kids First of El Paso PAC and the CREEED Foundation, working together. [1] CREEED is the umbrella. Kids First of El Paso PAC is the entity created “to focus on governance and advocacy efforts,” and the CREEED Foundation is a non-profit managing the group’s finances.

In other words, CREEED is the face of the organization that is funded by a non-profit which is so-far primarily funded by Hunt. The third entity is the one that makes public policy by advocacy targeted at school children, teachers, parents and others while at the same time managing government policy through elected officials.

The group wants to target the estimated 190,000 El Paso students in the nine school districts. The group estimates that by 2030, their target demographic will be 200,000. [1] CREEED sees itself as managing the K-12 “student educational pipeline.” To do so they have planned “four pillars of engagement.” The first pillar is “student attainment.” They want to increase the “number of high-performing seats” in El Paso. According to them, the “high-performing seats” are “college-ready” students. [1]

The second pillar is “educator talent”. Under this pillar they want to target teachers “to teach the curricula necessary to reach student attainment goals.” They want to create the “leaders necessary to mentor and lead teachers and reach student attainment goals.” In the third pillar, CREEED wants to engage the parents and community. The third pillar’s goal is “investing in initiatives that are going to create a pathway for parents and community leaders to become educational advocates, and empower them to be voices for increasing educational attainment.” [1]

The fourth pillar is “school leadership and governance development.” Under this pillar, the CREEED proponents formed a political action committee (PAC) to “facilitate involvement in the major ISD’s board of trustee’s elections.” This pillar also calls for “engaging community members to become school board candidates and providing effective school board training once elected.” [1]

The four pillars basically control the K-12 student pipeline from funding to student, parent and teacher stakeholders through elected officials to support the policy goals of CREEED. In other words, CREEED wants to control the educational public policy agenda of El Paso.

On the surface the CREEED narrative looks good as publicly framed. Very few can argue against increasing the educational levels in the city.

Charter Schools

To achieve its stated goal of expanding the number of “high-performing educations seats,” CREEED proposes “to radically expand” the number of charter schools or “stand-alone proven public charter schools.” CREEED provides different labels for the charter schools: specialized academies, in-district charter schools, magnets or early college high schools. [1]

Charter schools are “publicly funded” schools that are “operated by independent groups.” The schools “don’t have to follow the same regulations from states, municipalities and school districts” as the traditional public schools. [2] Charter schools can be managed by for-profit and non-profit companies. In Texas, non-profits are more common. [2]

The advantage to charter schools is that they have more flexibility in what and how they teach. Although publicly funded, charter schools tend to expel more students and although prohibited from doing so impose entrance requirements that can be used to limit who is allowed to attend the charter school. [2]

CREEED has committed $10 million to “support increasing the number of out of district high performing charter schools” in El Paso. [1] CREEED is not just looking to increase the number of out of district charter schools, it also wants to increase the number of in-district charter schools.

Charter schools offer advantages over their traditional public schools in the inherent flexibility their charter, or agreement, with the state’s educational oversight that allows them to set the curriculum they teach. In the traditional model, the curriculum is set by a broad spectrum of administrators, elected officials, teachers and parent stakeholders. A charter school, on the other hand, sets its own curriculum based on its agreement (charter) with the governing bodies.

The question then becomes, who are the stakeholders setting the charter curriculum, the parents or the companies creating the charters?

The problem faced by charter schools, like all public policy, is that the legislation needs to be in place for them. The CREEED 2018 five-year plan outlines how they will do this. First, the students, both as engagers and some, as future leaders. The second are the teachers. And the third are the parents. The fourth is electing candidates supportive of the efforts.

Readers may have recently noticed an increase in the number of El Paso Times editorials advocating for CREEED. For example, Joseph Sapien on July 4, 2021 and Richard Castro on August 22, 2021. That is part of CREEED’s community engagement that includes awards, research and letters to the editors including holding meetings with students, teachers and administrators.

CREEED Funds Candidates for School Boards

But without willing elected officials, CREEED’s plans are unsustainable. Thus, pillar four calls for investing in candidates running for office. During the school board elections earlier this year, Kids First of El Paso PAC, a CREEED subsidiary contributed a little less than $11,000 in campaign contributions to four EPISD school board candidates. [3] Kids First of El Paso PAC raised $61,400 for EPISD candidates. [4] Of that amount, $28,000 came from Richard Castro, chair of CREEED and Woody Hunt. [3] [4] Two EPISD board candidates, District 3 Leslie Hoard and District 4 Isabel Hernandez mailed campaign literature without disclosing that CREEED, a charter school proponent, paid for the mailers. [4] Hoard lost her race and Hernandez was elected to a four-year term.

CREEED’s own admission in its five-year plan says that it is “three separate organizations,” that include the Kids First of El Paso PAC. CREEED “is the main organization and the leader of all efforts,” [1] Nonetheless, its spokesperson told the El Paso Times earlier this year that the two organizations “are two separate entities with no connection between them.” [4]

Vince Perez, who was defeated by Iliana Holguin in 2020 volunteers to assist the PAC “in supporting candidates,” according to the El Paso Times. [4]

Clearly the CREEED five-year plan includes putting candidates on school boards. As CREEED is a substantial contributor to the school board candidates and because Woody Hunt has proven himself in removing individuals that do not support his agenda, it can be assumed that Hunt supports candidates for school boards that believe in the CREEED model of using charter schools to increase El Paso’s educational attainment.

The question, though, is who sets the public policy agenda of the education of El Paso’s children? Is it a community-wide initiative that includes most, if not all the stakeholders or is it the public policy agenda of the few who fund the research used to make public policy and fund elected officials who create the legislation that drives the community agenda?

This is an important question the community needs to address as evidenced by the Glass Beach Study that denigrated El Paso’s Mexican culture and the ongoing controversy over the targeting of poorer Latino neighborhoods for gentrification to make way for sports arenas. By largely funding CREEED, the K-12 pipeline for El Paso’s future leaders, Woody Hunt puts himself in the position to make El Paso’s public policy well into the future.

Editor’s note:
Martín Paredes extensively covered city politics from 2001 through mid-2005 for the online publications: El Paso Metro and the El Paso Tribune. Unless specifically noted, the information presented in this article comes from contemporaneous notes taken by the author at the time of the events depicted here.

Footnotes:

  1. CREEED Choose to Excel, High-Performing Seats Strategy 5 Year Plan, December 2018.
  2. Libby Nelson, “Everything you need to know about charter schools,” Vox, April 30, 2014.
  3. Cristina Carreon, “Special interest money heavy factor in EPISD race,” El Paso Times, April 25, 2021.
  4. Cristina Carreon, “PAC money not disclosed on EPISD candidate mailers,” El Paso Times, April 25, 2021.

4 replies »

  1. CREEED was instrumental in helping to fabricate the fake cheating scandal of EPISD. In part, this was to establish more charters in the boundaries of EPISD, especially downtown. Amy O’Rourke’s La Fe charter school downtown (formerly Roosevelt of EPISD) was purchased at pennies on the dollar. Most of the students who go there would have gone to Roosevelt had it still been an EPISD school. The school is rated as an F by TEA and the enrollment continues to decline with teachers making an average of $8000 less than the average public school teacher. Once the school fails, it will be owned by the owner of the charter rather than the public even though public funds have paid for the charter. Currently, the neighborhood is officially considered to be without an elementary school because a charter is not considered for attendance zone purposes. That allows a neighborhood to more easily be considered “blighted” for the purpose of eminent domain. The potential real estate value could skyrocket once a development project becomes a reality. And who will pay for that development? The city tax payer. As the Dire Straits noted: “Money for nothing….”

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  2. “CREEED wants to control the educational public policy agenda of El Paso.”

    Well, that is what happens when parents and voters neglect to do this for their children and themselves. A billionaire steps into the vacuum created by citizen apathy. What do you expect? It is not just confined to EPISD but the city as a whole. Point out that El Paso is “colonized” and listen to the screams of protest from the colonials.

    What the Hunt and associated interests consistently pursue is a building-centric agenda to create work for the building industry “ecosystem” of contractors, engineers, architects, etc. The agenda is funded by public debt effecting a transfer of Commons wealth to an oligarchic minority. The recent EPISD mega-bond issue is an example of this and the battle over the so-called multi-purpose arena is another.

    You get the government they pay for and then the government bills you. Just got my tax bill yesterday, up 7% from 2020.

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