By Alex Hinojosa
Widespread cheating continued at the El Paso Independent School District even after disgraced Superintendent Lorenzo García was arrested, as many high schools became “diploma mills,” according to an 86-page audit released Monday by the district.
A number of administrators cited in the report by Weaver and Tidwell, an Austin-based forensic accounting firm, said the company conducted an incomplete investigation and its auditors seemed unfamiliar with Texas education law.
The audit report noted that for much of García’s five-year tenure, “the district was run by a criminal.” But the report said problems continued even after García’s arrest in the summer of 2011.
“Long after García’s arrest and departure on August 1, 2011, many of these practices continued unabated. Although García was gone, the Bowie Plan infrastructure he created was still intact. 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,” the report said.
The report is highly critical of a number of administrators, but is virtually silent on the role played by the school board. While the report criticizes a reign of terror at the district — labeled the “García culture” — it makes no reference to actions taken by the board that enabled the convicted superintendent to control the district, such as giving him sole hiring and firing authority for top positions and allowing him to control the district’s internal auditor, in defiance of state law that mandated that the board oversee that position.
Trustees did not return calls for comment Monday evening. Weaver officials declined comment.
Much of the wrongdoing outlined in the audit report had been detailed previously, either in García’s guilty plea
or in the El Paso Times’ investigation throughout 2012. But the report also contained new allegations of attempts to push students through to graduation, often by cutting corners at several high schools.
Schools singled out in the report included Bowie High, the epicenter of the cheating scandal, as well as Austin, Irvin, El Paso and Burges high schools.
García is serving a three-and-a-half-year federal prison sentence in Pennsylvania after pleading guilty to two fraud counts, including leading a scheme to defraud federal accountability measures by gaming results at campuses in the district’s Priority Schools Division.
The investigators in the audit recommended personnel actions against a number of district administrators, including several who have already resigned or faced termination recommendations by the school board. The report recommends personnel action against four principals and four assistant principals who are up for possible termination at tonight’s board meeting.
Those facing termination are Burges High School Principal Randall Woods, El Paso High School Principal Kristine Ferret, Center for Career and Technology Education Principal Luis Loya, El Paso High School Assistant Principal Grace Runkles, Austin High School Principal John Tanner, Burges High School Assistant Principal J. Manuel Duran Jr., Jefferson High Assistant Principal Adrian Bustillos and Austin High School Assistant Principal Michael Salcido.
According to the Weaver
report, some administrators are alleged to have manipulated student data, denied enrollment to students or convinced them to enroll elsewhere, or implemented the use of accelerated instruction programs such as mini-mesters that would grant students credits in their core subjects so they could graduate.
Other allegations include sexual harassment claims and misconduct with parents and instructors.
In several instances the final report refers to the misuse of credit recovery by the administrators who awarded credits even when students had excessive absences or otherwise didn’t earn credit.
Principals and assistant principals facing termination claim that the audit misinterprets actions they took while at the helm of their campuses.
The Weaver report was harshly critical of two former top administrators, Terri Jordan and James Anderson.
Jordan was García’s chief of staff from 2009 to 2011, then served as interim superintendent after his arrest. She stepped down as interim superintendent in September 2012 to return to her chief of staff job, then resigned in December rather than face firing by the school board.
The report focused on her failure for nearly two years to report findings of an internal audit of Bowie High School to the Texas Education Agency, as called for in the internal audit.
“Despite her awareness of the serious nature of the problems at Bowie, which included an ongoing criminal investigation by the FBI, Dr. Jordan failed to take any meaningful actions to correct the problems at Bowie High School,” the Weaver report said.
Anderson was the associate superintendent in charge of high schools from 2010 until earlier this year, when the board recommended that he be fired. His fate will be determined by the TEA.
In December 2012, Anderson told the El Paso Times that he informed the TEA in June 2010 of potential serious problems at Bowie and requested an outside investigation, only to be rebuffed.
The Weaver report said TEA officials told EPISD administrators to conduct their own audit and correct and document errors.
Anderson delayed implementing many of the 21 activities outlined in a correction action plan that arose from the Bowie internal audit, Weaver investigators said.
Anderson has said his firing was retaliation for his interview with the Times, where he alleged failings by the TEA and members of the school board. He issued a statement Monday night denying the accusations in the audit report.
“With respect to the events described in this report to which I have personal knowledge, I can confidently state that the document reflects half-truths, misinformation, and a profound lack of understanding in school law and policy,” he said in the statement. “Fair and unbiased scrutiny of my actions will demonstrate that I have acted ethically and consistently with education standards on all levels.”
Duran is among those administrators who is alleged to have “disappeared” students by not enrolling them or by encouraging them to go to other campuses.
According to the report, during a training meeting for assistant principals in August 2010, Duran made a presentation about how Bowie High was implementing this practice and “boasted about 10 to 12 ways they would reduce the LEP (limited English proficient) population at Bowie, such as threatening the parents with deportation or criminal prosecution,” according to the Weaver report.
Duran said he didn’t know the specific accusations against him until the report was released Monday afternoon. He said knowing the accusations will allow him to respond.
Duran said he repeatedly asked the district for guidance and training on attendance credit recovery. He said he has documents to support his requests.
“I came from a middle school. The only way students could recover those credits was summer school,” Duran said. “I didn’t know what the options were in high school.”
During the audit, Duran said, the Weaver group presented him with a document that had his name on it, which would implicate him in wrongdoing. But he had never seen it before and it lacked his signature, he said.
“I don’t like the allegations against me,” Duran said. “I take it very seriously. I hope I get a chance to address it.”
The audit said Loya, while he was principal at Irvin High School, “had been instructing facilitators to push students who were missing credits through to graduate.”
The report continues that Loya had students write a two-paragraph essay to make up the missing credit.
Loya denied the accusations, saying they were a rehash of complaints last year when he was principal at Irvin. He said he was cleared in that investigation and was transferred to another campus at his request.
“These are things I’ve been investigated before on and they didn’t have anything,” Loya said. “The only thing is they added some things this time around to make it bigger. It’s all the same findings from before. They just copied and pasted. Nowhere does it say that I did anything wrong. Now, they want to use that information to terminate me.”
Woods and Ferret said that in the case of the attendance credit recovery process, the Weaver investigators confused attendance credit recovery and credit recovery related to the cheating scandal.
According to the district’s policy, a student must attend school at least 90 percent of the year to receive course credit.
When a student’s attendance rate drops below that percentage but remains at at least 75 percent of the class days, the student may earn credit for the class by completing a plan approved by the principal.
The policy does not dictate what the principal’s plan should contain.
“There is no guidance on the form,” Woods said. “And schools have different directives and different forms. It’s a loose issue, and it affects every campus.”
Woods added that despite the findings, he’s glad he finally knows what he’s accused of and wants to move forward and explain why certain things were done.
“Let’s look at the policies and read them over together,” Woods said. “Let’s see what they say and what they don’t say and figure how to interpret them together.”
In response to the audit report, Ferret, said she, too, was relieved.
Ferret is accused of ordering teachers to accept students needing different classes in one classroom and providing grades in whichever course they needed.
“I’ve just received a copy of the Weaver report,” Ferret said in a written statement Monday afternoon. “I am relieved that I will finally be able to respond to specific allegations in relation to me. The allegations and conclusions are based on incorrect information, reckless quotations, and flawed inferences. This is a gross mischaracterization of what actually occurred. I am looking forward to fully and completely responding to these matters. I am confident that a fair review will show that I have always acted ethically, in the best interest of El Paso High School students, and in accordance with district, state, and federal standards.”
Tiger Hanner, an Austin lawyer representing Tanner and Bustillos, said he believed the Weaver audit was “ridiculous” and called it “garbage.”
Tanner and Bustillos are accused of using an attendance credit recovery system that violated district policy and state law.
“They drudged up a bunch of garbage,” Hanner said. “There is nothing that we see here that remotely constitutes reasons for termination and non-renewal. I think the citizens of El Paso ought to be outraged that the district spent almost a million dollars for this mess.”
Weaver was hired by the district last year after the Texas Education Agency ordered the EPISD to hire an independent firm to investigate the cheating scandal that roiled the district.
The Austin company was the sole bidder on the contract, which originally called for payment of about $590,000. However, costs quickly escalated and the district wound up paying Weaver almost $800,000.
Several community leaders have criticized the district in recent days for the poor handling of the Weaver contract, and for the lack of information about why principals and assistant principals were being targeted for firing.
The Weaver report stated that a number of campus and central office administrators lost their way, leading to widespread failure in the district.
“We believe a number of otherwise ethical and honest educators made terrible decisions in the wake of cultural influences that they did not stand up against — sometimes out of fear for their positions or educator certifications, and sometimes merely out of expedience or insecurity. Many district campuses operated on a standard of ‘go along to get along.’
“The goal of graduating students, admirable on its surface, became little more than a numbers game, scarcely tied to true educational outcomes.”
This article was written by Alex Hinojosa and originally published on elpasotimes