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Education Commissioner Removes El Paso ISD Board for Poor Response to Cheating Scandal

Two years after state regulators cleared former Supt. Lorenzo Garcia of cheating accusations, new Education Commissioner Michael Williams has removed local trustees.
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Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams
Patrick Michels
Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams

In El Paso yesterday, the reaper wore a dark bow tie.

Two months after Education Commissioner Michael Williams threatened drastic action against El Paso ISD if its leaders didn’t clean up former Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia’s test-score-juking scheme, Williams returned to announce he was clearing out the entire school board.

The El Paso Times reported Williams’ plans Thursday morning, before his press conference, along with an exhaustive set of reactions from local officials. “If you cheat, we’ll eventually find out, and if we find out, we’re going to take strong action as a consequence of it,” Williams told the paper. The board, Williams has decided, will be replaced by five state-appointed managers, including outgoing state Rep. Dee Margo.

For months, EPISD board members have defended themselves against local critics. They’ve said they had no idea Garcia was cheating kids to boost test scores, and their hands were tied by an ongoing FBI investigation. “To take action at this point would result in interfering in their investigation,” board President Isela Castañon-Williams told the Observer in October.

David Dodge, the only current board member who was around when Garcia was hired, has said that nobody could have known what Garcia would get up to. “Folks, I can tell you that [job posting] did not call for a liar and a crook,” he said a board meeting in September.

El Paso ISD School Board
Patrick Michels
El Paso ISD trustees, in happier times

As Williams sees it, that’s not exactly the issue. “I gave the board time,” he told the Times, and though some mid-level administrators left the districtunder pressure from the board, Williams says that wasn’t enough. “It is my further judgment that there is not much more that they could do that’s big enough to restore a sense of confidence.”

Williams’ drastic action against the EPISD trustees now will also help some folks forget that, not so long ago, the state agency cleared Garcia of any wrongdoing at EPISD. That, predictably, is about how some of the ousted trustees put it to the Texas Tribune. “What happened at EPISD as far as how they held the students back, was all because TEA allowed that to happen,” trustee Alfredo Borrego told the Tribune. “TEA is using EPISD as a scapegoat.”

“While I commend [Williams] for taking strong action, the TEA must also review its own role in this tragedy,” state Sen. Jose Rodriguez said in a statement. Williams is apparently trying to do just that, and in the most mind-numbingly bureaucratic way possible: asking state auditors to put on their auditing hats and audit the way the Texas Education Agency conducts its audits. State auditors said they were swamped, and wouldn’t get to the job for another year or two.

But in El Paso yesterday, the reckoning for Garcia’s scheme just kept raining down. Thursday night, trustees in nearby Canutillo ISD voted to suspend Superintendent Damon Murphy—who had been one of Garcia’s top officials before leaving for Canutillo—on the way to firing him.

Former EPISD administrators have complained that Murphy was one of the enforcers behind Garcia’s plan to boost test scores. Many of them have said they expect to see him roped into the FBI’s investigation—but, incredibly, that isn’t even why Canutillo  trustees are forcing him out.

As the Times‘ Hayley Kappes reported last night, Murphy’s suspension was prompted by an internal audit at Canutillo ISD suggesting he’d been replicating Garcia’s scheme there: moving some 10th graders into other grades, and reclassifying special education students and students with limited English proficiency in order to avoid being counted under No Child Left Behind.

The Times has done an impressive job breaking news about this mess, but on a day like yesterday it’s a wonder they can keep up with it all.

Update at 8:54 p.m.: Here’s the audit summary presented to the Canutillo ISD board that led to Murphy’s suspension.

Patrick Michels is a reporter for the Texas Observer and a former legislative intern. He has been a staff writer and web editor at the Dallas Observer, and a former editor of the Texas Independent. He has a bachelor's in journalism from Northwestern University, a master's in photojournalism from the University of Texas at Austin, and is a competitive eating enthusiast.