District in turmoil as teachers and parents raise concerns about key decisions by MISD leadership

In the lead up to the 2023-2024 school year, turmoil over staffing and recent criminal investigations is causing division among the school board and some faculty at Marfa ISD. Photo by Mary Cantrell.

MARFA — At last week’s school board meeting, outgoing third-through-fifth-grade math teacher Evalice Arguello publicly rescinded her application to stay with Marfa ISD, leaving the district with one more vacancy to fill before the impending school year. While the district has struggled to attract and retain staff over a lack of housing and low salaries, Arguello made clear her departure was due to far deeper, more systemic problems she had observed with district leadership.

Arguello, in a letter read directly to the board from a podium on July 17, accused its members of behaving unethically when making personnel decisions, fostering a hostile environment, and even hindering student progress with poor decision-making. 

“The Marfa ISD School Board is operating unethically in their hiring and promoting decision-making processes while disregarding the best interests of the students and staff which is negatively going to impact their academic success and achievement,” read Arguello.

In an interview with The Big Bend Sentinel, Arguello clarified that some of her issues with the district were personal — she had experienced conflict with Board President Teresa Nuñez, and claims the board had opted against rehiring her after an initial resignation due to retaliation on Nunez’s part (the board has denied this, noting Nuñez is one of seven votes and that members had concerns about Arguello’s “repeated resignations”). 

But she also raised concerns with the district that went beyond her own contract. Those concerns include the decision to promote teacher and coach Arturo Alferez to interim superintendent this spring — a role for which she claims he is underqualified — and a perceived lack of proactive leadership after the alarming arrests this summer of frequent MISD substitute teacher Sonya Murillo and girls softball league coach P.J. Serrano on child sex abuse material charges. (The league Serrano coached for is not affiliated with the school district).

Those concerns have been echoed by two other MISD teachers, one who requested anonymity when speaking to The Big Bend Sentinel because they are currently employed by the district, and two parents whose children were interviewed by law enforcement regarding Murillo and Serrano around the time of the arrests. The Big Bend Sentinel is withholding the parents’ names in order to protect the identities of the children involved.

 

“No response from the school was devastating”

In May, authorities arrested P.J. Serrano after uncovering multiple videos and photos consisting of child sex abuse material on his cellphone. Shortly after, Sonya Murillo, Serrano’s former romantic partner and a substitute teacher for MISD, was arrested when authorities uncovered a video of Murillo performing a sex act on a young child. Murillo was indicted on four counts of production and one count of distribution of child sex abuse material. Serrano was indicted on one count of possession and one count of transportation of child sex abuse material.

Murillo was a frequent presence in the schools as an instructor. Serrano, though not affiliated with the district, coached some students with the Big Bend Amateur Softball Association. Both are Marfa ISD parents.

Teachers and parents alike said they have been disturbed by a lack of response from school leadership — particularly seeing as Murillo worked for the district as a substitute teacher herself. A teacher currently employed by MISD said there has been no district-wide communication regarding the arrest and ongoing investigation, and no guidance provided to instructors as to handling parent concerns.

“It would have been great for us to have a meeting — at least a mass email sent out — ‘Let’s talk this out and discuss our concerns and how we’re going to move forward, how we would deal with kids or parents coming to us,” that way we’re on the same page,” said the teacher.

Jackie Hernandez, an outgoing teacher with the district, said a parent reached out to her seeking counseling services for their child, who had been identified by investigators as a potential victim of Murillo’s, and educators had to find help outside of the school community. (The school’s student services coordinator, who acts as a part-time counselor, is no longer with the district and left the post at the end of June.)

Hernandez said she understood the confidential and sensitive nature of the situation, but more support should have been extended to families and clear directions to staff following the news.

“I felt like they could have done a lot more,” said Hernandez. “It was like everyone knew, but it was still not talked about. [It was] very hush, hush.” 

The parent who contacted Hernandez received a call in mid-June from a Texas Department of Public Safety detective stating that their 11-year-old son who attends Marfa Elementary had been identified as a potential victim of Murillo’s. The parent said Murillo met their son through the school and would drive him to sporting events and take him out to eat.

The child was interviewed by law enforcement, said the parent, but they have not received any communication from the school district.

The parent said they would have liked to see more resources and counseling offered by the district. They are now driving their son an hour and a half to Pecos once a week for therapy, and are considering pulling their child out of Marfa ISD.

No response from the school was devastating, as they are there to protect our children,” they said. 

In early May, a 12-year-old girl who attends Marfa Junior and Senior High School was interviewed by School Resource Officer Ian Martinez after reporting an inappropriate verbal exchange with P.J. Serrano to then-student services coordinator Jessica Murphy. The girl’s parent, in an interview with The Big Bend Sentinel, expressed frustration with what she saw as a lack of communication from law enforcement and school leaders in the aftermath.

“I had the feeling that the school didn’t care much,” they said. “I wish they would’ve offered my daughter more support and protection. I wish they would’ve talked to me as a parent to reassure [me] my daughter was safe going back to school.” 

The parent said they would like their daughter to receive counseling this coming school year, as the encounter with Serrano — which did not take place on school grounds — was traumatizing. 

Arguello, who is also the parent of two sons who attended Marfa Elementary, said she would have liked to see a community meeting for parents called immediately to start to “rebuild that bridge of trust,” considering Murillo was a district employee and educators maintain relationships with local families throughout summer break. 

“We take care of these kids, something to show that support and care,” said Arguello. “None of that has happened.” 

The district’s muted response stands in sharp contrast to those following other local crises, both in the MISD community and in a neighboring district. In 2018, after the murder of MISD teacher Sophia Sullivan, then-Superintendent Oscar Aguero collaborated with the Region 18 Education Service Center to bring in teams of counselors from around the area to offer mental health support for students and staff. 

“That was just something that was our standard practice when I was there. To say, ‘Hey, let’s make sure our kids are okay,’” said Aguero in a recent interview with The Big Bend Sentinel

Last year, when longtime Valentine ISD teacher Albert Ackley was arrested and charged with one count production and one count distribution of child sex abuse material, Superintendent Debbie Engle was in regular contact with law enforcement. At the time, Engle told The Big Bend Sentinel authorities had searched the school’s devices, counselors had interviewed staff and students and no victims associated with the school were found. 

The Marfa school board and Interim Superintendent Alferez said they had been unaware of any students’ involvement in the investigations. Alferez said the district remains committed to working with law enforcement, but to date no authorities had reached out. Board President Teresa Nuñez said that the district intends to take action to understand why they were unaware of students being questioned, and that they would have responded with supportive services had they been made aware.

Alferez said no concerns were raised about Murillo while she was a substitute with the district and that he is in contact with a counselor who is willing to provide services as needed for students and staff while the district searches for a permanent person to fill that position. 

The school board said they currently have a “highly qualified” candidate for the now-vacant position of counselor that they hoped to onboard soon.

In a statement to The Big Bend Sentinel, the school board acknowledged the public’s frustration about the lack of transparency regarding the ongoing investigations, that they shared that frustration, and that they will work to improve communication with the community.

Though Serrano, unlike Murillo, was not employed by the district, there was at least one attempt by district leaders to warn staff about his presence ahead of his arrest. An email viewed by The Big Bend Sentinel sent by former Junior High and High School Principal Luane Porter to staff on her campus on May 10 alerted faculty not to let Serrano in the building and included a photo of him. In an interview with the Sentinel, Porter declined to go into detail, but said she had sent the email in response to “an escalation of behavior” from Serrano.

The morning Serrano was arrested by authorities, May 11, the district adopted a shelter-in-place order upon the recommendation of law enforcement, according to former Superintendent Oscar Aguero. He said he understood the order was recommended because law enforcement agencies in the area were at Serrano’s home located near the district campus. Aguero said parents were not notified about the shelter in place, as it was a brief occurrence. 

The Texas Department of Public Safety and the Federal Bureau of Investigation declined to comment on the status of the ongoing investigations involving Murillo and Serrano and their communication with the school district. Both defendants are being held without bond. Both Murillo and Serrano’s attorneys declined to comment for this story. 

 

Appointment of Arturo Alferez as interim superintendent 

Arguello and other teachers have taken issue with the appointment and leadership of Interim Superintendent Arturo Alferez, an MISD teacher and coach who the school board voted unanimously to appoint following the resignation of Aguero in March. At the time of Murillo’s arrest, Alferez was at the helm of the district.

The Marfa ISD Board of Trustees consisted of President Teresa Nuñez, Rene Gonzales, Lori Flores, Yolanda Jurado, Ruben Martinez and Ernie Villarreal at the time, and has since grown to include new member Stela Fuentez. 

One of the school board’s primary roles is to hire and evaluate the superintendent — the district’s top administrator who receives a significant salary and subsidized housing in Marfa. Previous Superintendent Aguero, who was with the district for eight years serving in various capacities, earned an annual salary of $116,000 for the 2022-2023 school year, according to information made public by the Texas Education Agency. 

Since Alferez’s appointment, the board has not publicly announced whether it intends to conduct a search for a new full-time, permanent superintendent and has not posted the position. In response to a request for comment from The Big Bend Sentinel, the board confirmed it intends to onboard Alferez into the position permanently.

Alferez, who worked as a social studies teacher and coach before becoming interim superintendent at Marfa ISD, has previous administrative experience with Presidio ISD, including with career and technical education (CTE) programs, and holds a Master of Education in school administration from Sul Ross State University, but does not currently hold principal or superintendent certifications — qualifications earned through state programs and testing typically required for the role. While there is no time limit on how long an interim superintendent may hold the role before becoming a certified superintendent, Alferez and the school board said he is currently pursuing his superintendent certification through a program with Region 18. 

Luane Porter, previous Marfa Junior High and High School principal who served as a principal in Fort Davis for many years before coming to MISD, said she expressed interest in the superintendent position when it became available. She looked into obtaining her superintendent certification and secured a mentor, but was never asked by the school board to submit a formal application, she said. She has accepted an assistant principal position at Fort Stockton High School, and formally resigned from Marfa ISD last week.

Former Superintendent Aguero told The Big Bend Sentinel that he recommended Porter for the job upon his resignation to the school board, but declined to comment further. 

Porter declined to comment on whether her resignation was directly related to the appointment of Alferez as interim superintendent. “I have enjoyed working in Marfa. We have an outstanding group of teachers and students,” said Porter. “An opportunity came up in Fort Stockton for me, and I just feel like that’s something I need to do.” 

The school board said Porter was considered for the superintendent role, but they believed promoting Alferez, therefore adding him to the leadership team of which Porter was already a part of, would “maximize student outcomes.” The board said there is “no definite date or plan” to hire a new superintendent and that they believe Alferez’s appointment as interim superintendent is in the best interest of the district. 

Arguello said she and fellow colleagues would have liked to see the board of trustees hire a professional consulting firm to conduct the search for the new superintendent as well as the solicitation of staff and community feedback to help inform their decision.

“We were not asked for our opinion at all,” said Arguello. “Staff was not given a survey, parents were not given a survey, the community was not asked ‘What do you need in a superintendent?’” 

Arguello, Hernandez and the other teacher interviewed for this story said they felt that the school board overlooked Porter — who they said was a knowledgeable candidate who would help keep the district in compliance with the state — and Alferez’s appointment didn’t seem to be in the best interest of the district. The teacher currently with the district said the appointment seemed hasty, and would have benefited from a more thorough search.

“It was not a well-thought-out decision — not to post the job so we could have feelers and maybe hire a company to do that search so it’s transparent,” said the teacher currently with the district. “Someone from the outside would be more likely to make decisions based on qualifications.”

“None of this had to happen this way, and we could be in great standing if different choices were made,” they added. 

 

Outgoing teachers reflect on district culture, leadership 

With the start of a new school year mere weeks away, Marfa ISD is also seriously understaffed — around 30% of its positions remain vacant. Porter’s Junior High and High School principal position, and other vital roles, including two math teachers for grades 6 through 12, cafeteria director and more are unfilled. Alferez said a history and a math teacher for the high school should be hired soon.

As outgoing instructors, both Arguello and Hernandez cited feeling overworked due to inadequate staffing — the school board voted last year to adopt a four-day instructional week for the coming year in order to give teachers more time for planning and mental health — as well as concerns with district leadership that had helped prompt their departures. 

For one, Arguello and Hernandez expressed ethical concerns over the makeup of the school board itself — particularly over the continued presence of member Ernie Villarreal, brother of Board President Teresa Nuñez, who was put on administrative leave then resigned from his role as finance director at Valentine ISD when an audit revealed $165,000 of unauthorized transactions and instances of falsified documents, prompting a criminal investigation. Villarreal has not been charged with a crime.

The school board said Villarreal is an elected position and they will respect whatever outcome the community chooses when his seat is up for election in May 2025. (The past two school board elections, in May 2022 and May 2023, were canceled due to a lack of candidates vying for the positions.)

Then there are practical considerations plaguing the district, like substandard teacher pay. Hernandez said she is leaving the district for another teaching job in the state that will pay her around $20,000 more than Marfa ISD.

“A big part of why I’m leaving is financially, for one. Two, it’s like the whole character, what the school is representing, I don’t want to be a part of that,” said Hernandez.

The school board said they intend to review employee salaries in their upcoming board meeting, and they were disappointed that the Texas Legislature has not approved significant funding for teacher salaries as anticipated in recent legislative sessions. The board said they remain focused on filling vacancies within the district, take hiring recommendations from the superintendent and hiring committees “very seriously” and will work to improve communication and any fissured relationships with faculty and the community. 

“We want our parents, students and staff to know, to the fullest extent possible, what is happening and why,” wrote board members in a statement to The Big Bend Sentinel. “In the coming year, we will be delivering messages to our community via several outlets to help build that trust that we are doing what is in the best interest of our students.”  

As it stands, Marfa ISD teachers are underpaid, stretched-thin and have a hard enough time meeting basic needs, said Arguello, meaning enrichment initiatives for students and community often fall by the wayside.

“If we’re just trying to get through each school day, just surviving, how are we meeting the social emotional needs [of students]?” said Arguello. “How are we able to engage a community?”