Texas Takes Action Against 11 for El Paso ISD Cheating Scheme

Texas Takes Action Against 11 for El Paso ISD Cheating Scheme

In an unprecedented action, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) filed a petition to hold 11 employees accountable for their roles in the El Paso Independent School District (EPISD) cheating scheme, masterminded by the district’s former superintendent Lorenzo García.

The El Paso Times noted that, in 2012, García voluntarily relinquished his teaching credentials following a guilty plea to federal charges of conspiracy to commit two counts of fraud, including leading a scheme to defraud federal accountability measures by gaming results at campuses in the district’s Priority Schools Division. He is now serving time in federal prison. 

On April 9, a 60-page petition was filed by the TEA and named the 11 EPISD employees charged with violating Title 19 of the Texas Administration Code (TAC), Chapters 101 and 227-250. 

Besides García, the EPISD staffers implicated were interim EPISD superintendent Terri Jordan, former secondary education superintendent James Anderson, Priority Schools administrators Maria Flores and Mirna Gamboa; former Director of Guidance Services Kathleen Ortega; Bowie High School Principal Jesus Chavez, Bowie Assistant Principals Ana Luisa Kell and Johnnie Vega; plus Priority Schools associate superintendent Damon Murphy, who was later superintendent at neighboring Canutillo ISD, according to the El Paso Times article.

Current Burges High School Assistant Principal Manuel Duran–who was a former assistant principal at Bowie–was charged with falsifying student attendance records to eliminate the subpopulation of limited English proficient students and pressuring students to withdraw from Bowie High School. He also prevented them from enrolling, the El Paso Times pointed out. Gina Oaxaca, who for the past seven years has been the district’s director of bilingual education, was also named in the petition.

The petition also accused Jordan of covering up a previous internal audit that uncovered alterations of 77 Bowie High School student transcripts.  According to the petition, the original in-house audit “was initiated in August 2010 and completed in May 2011, but Jordan never alerted TEA to its findings.” 

Most of those named in the petition were accused of participating in falsifying federal accountability reports or knew of the scheme but did nothing to stop it, according to the Times. These individuals were either administrators charged with being responsible for the cheating scheme or were connected directly to cheating that occurred at the district’s Bowie High School.

The petition also cited alleged efforts to game the federal accountability standards, including manipulating the testing population for  high school Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS). The TAKS preceded the current State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) end-of-course required exams.  This included “forcing students out of school, keeping Mexican students from enrolling in schools, doctoring attendance records to give students credits they weren’t entitled to and altering student transcripts,” according to the El Paso Times.

Bowie High School was the epicenter of the scandal where this Title I status occurred and AYP (Adequately Yearly Progress) reporting to the federal government under No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was missed between 2003-2012, according to the petition.

The primary purpose of the AYP requirement was to “serve as the basis for identifying schools and local education agencies (LEA) where performance is unsatisfactory, so that inadequacies may be addressed first through provision of increased support and, ultimately, a variety of corrective actions,” according to the Center of Governmental Studies Policy Archive Research Collection. This reporting was mandatory under NCLB.

In late 2012, TEA Education Commissioner Michael Williams requested an external investigation from the state auditor to ascertain why the agency failed to catch the EPISD cheating scheme. This resulted in a formal independent external audit performed by the Austin-based accounting firm Weaver & Tidwell, LLP.

In April 2013, the El Paso Times depicted a very unflattering portrayal of those employees implicated in the cheating scandal, citing the released Weaver audit results and calling the schools “diploma mills.”  

The article stated: “…even after García’s “arrest and departure on August 1, 2011, many of these practices continued unabated. …In the rush to avoid accountability consequences for inadequate graduation rates, many district high schools became credit mills and eventually diploma mills as unearned credits resulted in the graduation of ill-prepared students.  These students are the victims of the culture García promulgated, and it is not a culture easily undone.”

An earlier timeline of events showed that the allegations originally surfaced when former Bowie High School counselor Pat Scott provided those 77 transcripts that documented cheating to her boss, Kathleen Ortega in late 2009, according to the El Paso Times.  Recently, Scott was recognized by the FBI in Washington, D.C., for her role as the debacle’s whistleblower

Ortega was implicated in the petition because of her delay in presenting the transcript findings to the proper authorities, which, in essence, meant she failed to take prompt action to stop illegal activities at Bowie High School. Ortega is now retired.

By 2010, this began to escalate when then state Senator Eliot Shapleigh (D-El Paso) accused García in writing of wrongdoing. He cited disappearing grades from low-performing students, accusations of deportations, charter school transfers and holding students back from taking the annual exams that counted toward federal accountability. Shapleigh then took his allegations to the media.

The story has been well chronicled since the district released the findings of the cheating scandal in 2013.  The El Paso Times has covered the scandal extensively since the beginning.   Also, Breitbart Texas has reported on a number of school district scandals resulting in TEA board of trustee takeovers, including the high-stakes testing scheme at EPISD.

Breitbart Texas contacted the TEA regarding the EPISD case.  Spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe said that because the case is still in litigation, the TEA is not issuing any comments about it at this time.

However, she told Breitbart Texas, “we expect Texas educators to follow the laws and rules of the state and to make decisions that take into account the best interest of children.”

2014-4-9 Original Petition (FINAL) – EPISD by BreitbartTexas

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