Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams announced Thursday that he will strip the trustees of the El Paso Independent School District of their authority and that he is appointing a five-member board of managers to oversee the district for up to two years.
The move comes in the wake of accusations that the trustees failed to catch a scheme tied to former Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia that either removed or advanced students who were not passing. Garcia is in federal prison serving a three-and-a-half-year term related to the scandal.
Last month, federal prosecutors charged Garcia with carrying out measures to inflate test scores so that the district could collect annual bonus funds for goals under the No Child Left Behind Act. Williams says that in the wake of the scandal, members of the El Paso school board did not do enough to investigate what had happened, and had lost the trust of the community.
"In this moment, in order to regain the full trust of this community and in order for this community to move forward, it is important to change the players in this particular game," Williams said Thursday afternoon at a news conference. Current board members will "continue in their positions," he added, but the board of managers will sit above them.
"We're not going to allow cheating in this state," Williams added. "Moms and dads truly want to know how their youngsters are performing."
Alfredo Borrego, one of the trustees stripped of their authority, said he thought the Texas Education Agency was posturing "in an attempt to deflect their responsibility in this mess." He argued that since being appointed to the school board in 2010, he has tried to steer policy and that the TEA is also partly to blame in the scandal.
"What happened at EPISD as far as how they held the students back, was all because TEA allowed that to happen," he said. "TEA is using EPISD as a scapegoat."
Due to a requirement under the Voting Rights Act that the state receive approval from the Justice Department before replacing elected officials, the school district trustees will continue in their positions until a ruling is made. Williams said that could take two to three months.
The five-member board of managers will include state Rep. Dee Margo, R-El Paso, who will leave office in January; TEA Monitor Judy Castleberry; El Paso's chief financial officer, Carmen Arrieta-Candelaria; and Public Service Board CEO Ed Archuleta. A fifth appointment will come from a list of suggestions provided by state Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso.
As the state waits for the Justice Department to approve the board of managers plan, Castleberry — who already monitors the district for the TEA — will act as conservator, with the ability to overrule the superintendent and the school board.
According to federal prosecutors, Garcia oversaw a scheme in which low-performing students were transferred to charter schools and told not to go to school on testings days. Because the tests are given to sophomores, some students had their grades changed so they could be reclassified as freshmen or juniors.
In October, trustee David Dodge told the El Paso Times that the FBI had kept the district from conducting its own investigation of the scandal, but FBI officials told the paper that they never prevented an internal investigation.
"If they don't want me around, that's fine and dandy," Borrego said. "I just feel sorry for the schools I represent, because the corruption here didn't just happen. It's just gotten worse and worse."
Rodríguez supported Thursday's announcement. "Although I believe the majority of the Trustees to be well-intentioned," he said in a news release, "the Trustees never fully acknowledged their responsibility for the situation, and as a result, they made it difficult for the community to trust their actions."
But Rodriguez also agrees with Borrego's contention that TEA may be partially to blame. "The TEA must also review its own role in this tragedy," he said. "I hope that the Commissioner will proceed with a third-party audit of the agency's own actions and its failure to discover the widespread corruption at EPISD."
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