Seven UTRGV alumni are now Valley superintendents of schools

  Tuesday, May 7, 2024

By Matthew Cavazos

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS – MAY 7, 2023 – Seven Valley superintendents – all alumni of the UTRGV Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership program – are creating opportunities for children to follow and achieve their dreams.

They have more than 75 years of combined experience as superintendents of schools, and to date have helped shape the lives of more than half a million people and, by extension, the future of Texas.

The seven alumni featured here are:

  • Alda Benavides – Edcouch-Elsa Independent School District (EEISD).
  • Mario Salinas – Edinburg Consolidated Independent School District (ECISD).
  • J.A. Gonzalez – Harlingen Consolidated Independent School District (HCISD).
  • Gonzalo Salazar – Los Fresnos Consolidated Independent School District (LFCISD).
  • René Gutiérrez – McAllen Independent School District (MISD).
  • Tony Lara – South Texas Independent School District (STISD).
  • Richard Rivera – Weslaco Independent School District (WISD). 


UTRGV’s Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership program has a rich history that started some 30 years ago, when in 1994 the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) approved a cooperative doctoral program in educational leadership with UT Austin. The goal was for it to become a standalone doctoral program.

The program met that goal in just four years, and in 1998 became the second standalone doctoral degree offered by UTRGV legacy institution UT Pan American (UTPA) when the inaugural cohort joined the program. This academic year marks the 25th anniversary of that storied program. 

Today, the program has evolved into one that graduates an average of seven students every year, and its success has helped establish a precedent for doctoral programs in the Rio Grande Valley.

The program strives to educate and help develop effective leaders not just for the Rio Grande Valley, but also for service throughout the United States in areas with similar population demographics.

“Our doctoral program gives these educators the knowledge in the area of research that they would not have received if they had not attended a doctoral program,” said Dr. Velma Menchaca, a professor in the UTRGV College of Education. 

Research and the ability to interpret data has been a key focal point for the program, and all graduates must write a dissertation that involves intensive research for completion.

Most tend to study an issue that may be prominent in their own district or campus, which allows the program’s graduates to find the reasons for a persistent problem, along with potential solutions for those issues.

Menchaca said the program encourages that process because it focuses heavily on turning theory into practice.

“We want our graduates to be able to interpret the data and implement a successful solution for our students,” she said.


ALDA BENAVIDES, Superintendent of Schools, Edcouch-Elsa ISD

Benavides started her doctoral track at UT Austin. When she was promoted to principal of E.B. Reyna Elementary School in La Joya, she no longer could travel to and from Austin multiple times a week, so she decided to finish her doctoral degree at UTRGV legacy institution UT Pan American. She was one of the first graduates of the doctoral program in Spring 2001, a trailblazer who put her faith in a new program at UTPA.

Benavides said she appreciates the dedication and hard work required to earn a doctoral degree, and believes all superintendents should pursue the highest form of education.

“UTRGV has grown and has a good reputation,” Benavides said. “If you are going to stay in education, I think it is good to have a doctorate and be a role model for kids.”

She graduated from La Joya High School in 1971, earned a bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education from what was then Pan American University.

Benavides joined La Joya Independent School District in 1984, and would stay with the district until her retirement in 2019 from her role as superintendent of schools.

While at the La Joya school district, she was an assistant principal, a principal, and assistant superintendent before becoming superintendent in September 2006.

“I am most proud of separating La Joya into three high schools,” Benavides said. “The separation created more opportunities for the students in our district.”

La Joya High School was the only high school in the district until the 2008-09 school year, when both La Joya Palmview and La Joya Juarez-Lincoln opened.

Benavides was announced as the sole finalist for Edcouch-Elsa ISD’s superintendent of schools after serving as the district’s interim superintendent. She also serves on the La Joya School Board.

MARIO SALINAS, Superintendent of Schools, Edinburg CISD

Salinas would be the first to tell you he never expected to become a superintendent, even after spending 10 years as a principal in Edinburg and being promoted to assistant superintendent for Student Support Services in ­­2005.

After six years in that role, he decided to apply for the Doctor of Education in Education Leadership program at UTRGV, from which he graduated in 2013.

In 2021, Salinas officially was named superintendent of the Edinburg Consolidated Independent School District.

“If UTRGV had not offered that program, I would not be sitting here talking to you as the superintendent of Edinburg schools,” Salinas said.

While working as assistant superintendent, he spent countless nights and weekends in the classroom or in the UTRGV library. At the same time, he said, he had to balance his family life.

“I cherish the degree even more because I had my children while in the middle of the doctoral program,” he said.

Salinas said he is grateful for the support he received from his cohort and his professors and credits Dr. Francisco Guajardo, his dissertation chair, as a major influence on his studies and career.

“He committed himself to making sure I graduated,” Salinas said. “Once a month, we would meet at 6:30 a.m. at a local taco shop and review progress on my dissertation.”

Salinas said he grew up poor, and today stands as a prime example that education is the great equalizer. It is a message he shares often with his students.

“As a superintendent, having a doctoral degree models to all children that, through education, you can realize your American dream,” he said.

J.A. GONZALEZ, Superintendent of Schools, Harlingen CISD

Gonzalez was very young when he started dreaming of being a superintendent. His dad worked in education for 40 years, so he grew up with education and all it entails. In 1997, he would move to McAllen to complete his master’s and doctoral degrees at then UTPA. He graduated with his Ed.D. in Spring 2008.

“We’re in the dream business,” he said. “Everyone is some kind of smart. We just have to find the genius.”

While in McAllen, Gonzalez spent all his extra time to pursue his degrees at UTPA. He was in the doctoral program for seven years before he completed it.

His youthful dream came true in August 2016, when he was announced as lone finalist for superintendent of the McAllen Independent School District (MISD). He was just 42 at the time.

Gonzalez reflected on the impact the doctoral program made on him during his journey to superintendent. 

“It was transformative. I was able to take theory and apply it to practice,” Gonzalez said. “You are around people who are running schools and departments and learning from professors who have done the work before. You not only are learning from a textbook perspective, but from an applicable perspective.”

In October 2020, Gonzalez was named Texas Superintendent of the Year by the Texas Association of School Boards. He would serve as McAllen superintendent of schools for the next seven years, before being named superintendent for Harlingen schools on Sept. 1, 2023.

Now entering his eighth year as a superintendent, Gonzalez notes the importance the university has played in his life. 

“I’m hoping that all three of my kids attend UTRGV,” Gonzalez said. “I think the number one university is UTRGV. I would recommend not only the program, but the entire university.”

GONZALO SALAZAR, Superintendent of Schools, Los Fresnos CISD

Salazar’s path has been unique. In December 2005, while principal at Olmito Elementary, Salazar was surprised to be named Interim Superintendent of the Los Fresnos Consolidated Independent School District. This is his 18th school year as superintendent.

He had been superintendent for 12 years when he graduated with his Doctoral Degree in Educational Leadership (Ed.D.) in Spring 2018.

It was important to him to go back to school to earn a doctoral degree, he said.

“In Los Fresnos, we are committed to being a lifelong learner,” Salazar said. “As the leader for this organization, I have to model that for our students.”

There were some challenges along the way. At the time, he had three children: one was playing Little League baseball, one played softball and another was in school. 

“I was in the bleachers one day as my son was striking out at the plate in Little League. I sat there and I thought, I’m putting my dreams ahead of his,” Salazar said. “So, I took a year off. I wanted to rebalance my life.”

Students who take a year off can find it hard to return, he said, your cohort moves on. But Salazar returned with even more resolve to devote himself to finishing the program.

The end of the doctoral program is marked by a dissertation, and Salazar struggled to find a meaningful and relevant topic until Dr. Francisco Guajardo – a mentor of Salazar’s and his future dissertation chair – introduced the concept of an autoethnography, a study of the self. 

Salazar’s dissertation focused on Hispanic superintendents of South Texas, and the topic gave him the ability to reflect on his time as superintendent and learn from his past.

“I have been blessed to see kids graduate from Los Fresnos and become teachers in Los Fresnos – my daughter included,” he said.

RENE GUTIERREZ, Superintendent of Schools, McAllen ISD

Gutierrez started teaching 36 years ago. And that is when he truly realized the full import of education for children.

“I eventually realized that I wanted to impact even more kids,” he said, “and the way to do that was to become an administrator.”

Gutierrez became an elementary school principal and decided to apply for the doctoral program at UTRGV, hoping to one day be a superintendent of schools in the Rio Grande Valley.

“Through our districts, we are the transformation that can change our community for the better,” Gutierrez said. “That is, to provide our kids with a quality education and as many opportunities as possible for them to be successful.”

In the fall of 2008, he graduated with his EdD from UTPA, and named the superintendent of schools for Edinburg CISD in 2009.

Gutierrez spent 10 years with the Edinburg school district, then four years as superintendent of the Brownsville Independent School District.

He has received numerous recognitions for his work in Edinburg and Brownsville, and in 2012 earned his first Region One Superintendent of the Year award. This year, he earned the recognition yet again, making him the most recent recipient of the Region One award.

“I can relate a lot of my decision-making and leadership skills to UTRGV’s doctoral program,” Gutierrez said. “It has made me a better superintendent.” 

Today, Gutierrez’s life and career have come full circle as he dons the superintendent mantle in the school district that laid his educational foundation. More than 40 years after graduating from McAllen High School, Gutierrez on Oct. 16, 2023, was announced as lone finalist for superintendent of schools in McAllen.

TONY LARA, Superintendent of Schools, South Texas ISD

When Lara graduated college, he set off into the world of business, where he would remain for 12 years before finding his calling, education.

“I decided to be in education because it is an area of work where you can really make a difference,” Lara said. “My ‘why’ is to always be of service.” 

Lara graduated with his Doctoral Degree in Educational Leadership (Ed.D.) in 2013 and was named superintendent of schools for South Texas ISD in October 2018.

He said his time at UTPA provided him with valuable connections and helped him build key relationships with his colleagues and professors.

“A lot of the people that I was going to school with were colleagues and people I already knew,” he said. “I think the relationship building, along with the journey to enhance my education, was invaluable.”

Lara believes all superintendents should get their doctoral degree because it enhances one’s ability to serve, and he offered his perspective into the value of attending UTRGV.

“The RGV is very tight, and the schools are sister schools,” he said. “The value in the program at UTRGV is that they are your colleagues, friends, and coworkers. It is easier to reach out and ask for help with an issue that is local.”

He advises any potential candidate of the doctoral program to learn, grow and build as many relationships as possible.

“I’m most proud of the ability to be resourceful as an educator in any area of work that we’re doing,” Lara said. “And I’m happy that I have been able to bring these relationships and resources into the school district.”

RICHARD RIVERA, Superintendent of Schools, Weslaco ISD

Hired in May 2023 as the superintendent of schools for the Weslaco Independent School District, Rivera previously had served as superintendent there from 1996 to 2011. In 2008, Rivera graduated with his doctorate in Educational Leadership from UTPA.

His purpose has always been service, he said, “I believe my strength comes from serving our children.”

After serving as superintendent for 12 years, he decided to go back to get his doctoral degree.

“I felt that to be superintendent, I still needed additional knowledge,” Rivera said. “I wanted to continue learning and experience different points of view.” 

An advocate for lifelong learning, he advises students entering the UTRGV education program to dedicate themselves and focus on learning something new every single day. 

“Go and learn. You will become a better administrator,” Rivera said. “I am still learning and growing.”

Rivera shared some of the challenges students in the doctoral program might experience, like having to find a way to balance work, school, and family life.

“I had young kids and always managed to spend quality time with them,” Rivera said. “You have to make time for your family. Family is very important.”

The Valley native raves about the opportunities UTRGV and its legacy institutions have provided.

“Pan American was the only way I could have continued my education,” Rivera said. “Had the program not existed, I would not have received my doctorate.”


Seven superintendents – representing the 147 graduates who have completed and continue to complete the EdD program at UTRGV and UTPA – are making an indelible impact on the lives of students not just around the Valley, but around the state, nation and world.

Dr. Alma Rodriguez. dean of the UTRGV College of Education & P-16 Integration, said that as UTRGV looks to the next 25 years, the program will continue to prepare leaders for excellence in the ever-changing landscape of education.

“Our faculty continue to engage in discussions focused on the continuous improvement of the program, to ensure it is meeting the needs of today’s educational leaders,” Rodriguez said. “I look forward to our program’s continued influence on expanding educational opportunities in the Rio Grande Valley and beyond.”


The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) was created by the Texas Legislature in 2013 as the first major public university of the 21st century in Texas. This transformative initiative provided the opportunity to expand educational opportunities in the Rio Grande Valley, including a new School of Medicine, and made it possible for residents of the region to benefit from the Permanent University Fund – a public endowment contributing support to the University of Texas System and other institutions.

UTRGV has campuses and off-campus research and teaching sites throughout the Rio Grande Valley including in Boca Chica Beach, Brownsville (formerly The University of Texas at Brownsville campus), Edinburg (formerly The University of Texas-Pan American campus), Harlingen, McAllen, Port Isabel, Rio Grande City, and South Padre Island. UTRGV, a comprehensive academic institution, enrolled its first class in the fall of 2015, and the School of Medicine welcomed its first class in the summer of 2016.