in Houston, Texas
Former El Paso ISD superintendent Lorenzo Garcia sentenced to 3 ½ years in prison, ordered to pay $236K in restitution, fines
Friday, Oct 05, 2012, 04:00PM CST
By Curt Olson
scales of justice

Former El Paso Independent School District Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia was sentenced to three-and-a-half years for his role in a scheme to manipulate test scores.

Garcia, who pleaded guilty in June to two counts of conspiracy to commit mail fraud, will also pay $180,000 in restitution and a $56,500 fine, the El Paso Times reports. Garcia steered a $450,000 district contract to a mistress and rigged the testing system to boost scores and meet federal accountability students.

State Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, who made the first accusations in 2010 that ultimately proved true, called on Senior U.S. District Court Judge David Briones to give Garcia a harsher sentence.

Garcia’s sentencing ends only a part of the sordid story that has plagued EPISD. The district, under the guidance of trustees who have failed to lead, is under state oversight.

***
Contact Curt Olson at curt@texaswatchdog.org or 512-557-3800. Follow him on Twitter @olson_curt.

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Photo of scales of justice by flickr user mikecogh, used via a Creative Commons license.

Under state oversight following cheating scandal, El Paso ISD considers replacing interim superintendent
Tuesday, Sep 11, 2012, 05:14PM CST
By Mike Cronin
pencil

Less than a month after the Texas Education Agency appointed a monitor to oversee the El Paso’s public schools in the wake of a cheating scandal, district officials plan to replace the interim superintendent, the El Paso Times reported today.

Board members of the El Paso Independent School District would not explain why they sought to replace the current interim superintendent, Terri Jordan.

"It would not be appropriate for me to comment on this closed session agenda item before it is discussed fully by board members at tomorrow's meeting," board President Isela Castañon-Williams told the Times in a statement Monday.

The board was set to discuss Jordan’s replacement this afternoon.

Jordan served as the chief of staff to former El Paso public schools chief Lorenzo García prior to his arrest last year on public corruption charges.

García pleaded guilty in June to fraud and admitted directing a contract to a mistress and playing a role in the cheating scandal. García received tens of thousands of dollars in bonuses tied to student achievement - a measure that had been rigged by him and other district leaders.

The search for a new interim superintendent is taking place locally and statewide, said James "Jimmy" Vasquez, the executive director of Region 19 Education Service Center and the head of a task force created to help EPISD recover from the scandal.

"I have been calling the former superintendents of large school districts. We don't have anybody yet," Vasquez said of the candidate search.

Vasquez said the district is looking for a "temporary interim superintendent" to be followed by an interim superintendent and finally a full-time superintendent.

Trustees voted in June to extend Jordan's contract as interim superintendent for a year at her current annual salary of $180,000. Jordan’s contract permits her to return to the chief of staff position.

***
Contact Mike Cronin at mike@texaswatchdog.org or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelccronin or @texaswatchdog.

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Photo by flickr user flakeparadigm, used via a Creative Commons license.

‘Daunting task’ for state monitor of El Paso school district in moving past cheating scandal
Wednesday, Aug 22, 2012, 01:33PM CST
By Mike Cronin
elapse

A monitor appointed by the Texas Education Agency will oversee the El Paso Independent School District’s steps to overcome a cheating scandal perpetrated by the former superintendent.

“It is a daunting task,” Judy Castleberry told the El Paso Times. Castleberry previously served as a state monitor for the Dallas Independent School District. A San Antonio resident, she also is a former executive director of that city’s Region 20 Education Service Center in San Antonio.

“It's a big task, and if I can have a small part in it and students will be better served because of that, then I'm pleased,” Castleberry told the Times, while describing El Paso public schools as “a system that’s broken.”

Former Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia pleaded guilty in June to fraud and directing a contract to a mistress. He and other district leaders received raises due to the cheating. School board members blamed the state’s open meetings laws for their failure to get information from the district’s internal auditor.

Trustees further outraged the public by allowing a task force with the responsibility to address the district’s problems to hold its first meeting in secret. Half of the task force members showed up for the first meeting, and two members resigned, the El Paso Times reported.

The state earlier this month put the district’s accreditation on probation.

Castleberry will visit the district periodically and “attend at least one school board meeting a month to determine whether the district is making progress in correcting systemic failures that led to its cheating scandal,” the newspaper reported.

From the El Paso Times:

When she is not in El Paso, Castleberry said, she will have daily contact with interim Superintendent Terri Jordan and other administrators and will watch a live stream of school board meetings online.

Castleberry will submit reports on the district's progress to the state education agency at the end of every month.

She will submit her first report at the end of September.

After reviewing a report, the state will send the document to Jordan, who will distribute it to trustees.

Those reports will be subject to the state Public Information Act, so anyone can request a copy from the Texas Education Agency.

The monitor will earn $75 an hour and receive travel reimbursement on the district’s dime. The TEA will assess the situation every three months.

Other state sanctions include:

  • An independent examination of what allowed the cheating to occur.
  • The hiring of an outside organization to oversee administration and security of standardized testing this academic year.
  • Training of district officials and trustees to prevent comparable violations that would be conducted by an independent company.

***
Contact Mike Cronin at mike@texaswatchdog.org or 713-228-2850.  Follow him on Twitter @michaelccronon.

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Photo of 'Amtrak Station El Paso Texas' by flickr user Loco Steve, used via a Creative Commons license.

El Paso ISD trustees allowing task force to improve the district to conduct closed meeting
Tuesday, Aug 07, 2012, 02:16PM CST
By Curt Olson
elapse

The top brass at the El Paso Independent School District now seem befuddled by the lack of transparency that allowed a district cheating scandal to metastasize.

A task force created by trustees to improve the district’s governance will conduct its first meeting on Wednesday behind closed doors, the El Paso Times reports.

The panel was named after Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia pleaded guilty in June to fraud in a massive cheating scandal and directing a contract to a mistress. More indictments are possible in the cheating sanctioned by Garcia. Also, five former EPISD principals have come forward to say they refused to go along with the scam that allowed Garcia and other district leaders to receive raises from the cheating. El Paso ISD trustees blamed the state’s open meetings laws for their failure to get information from the district’s internal auditor, which would have warned them of the cheating scandal much sooner.

The task force’s closed meeting was broken by the El Paso Times after a reporter informed the task force she would attend the first meeting. The paper reports that the closed meeting is allowed under the law because of the task force’s nature as an advisory body, but with the scandal that engulfs EPISD, it’s shocking trustees would allow it.

“I think absolutely if transparency has been a problem in the past this certainly isn’t going to bolster the public’s confidence in the entity to not keep things secret from them again,” Charles Daughtry, a Houston-based First Amendment attorney and board member of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, tells the Times.

Also against the closed-door meeting were El Paso Democratic state Reps. Marisa Marquez and Joe Pickett and Republican Dee Margo. Democratic State Sen. Jose Rodriguez told the paper he has no problem with closed-door meetings if the task force interviews people to find facts, but that governance issues must be held in the open.

“We are in a crisis and everyone needs to be involved,” said Marquez, who has passed legislation seeking more transparency of school districts. “There is no excuse for any more closed-door meetings at any level regarding EPISD. It has not been productive for them in the past, not in the recent past and it will not be productive for their future.”

***
Contact Curt Olson at curt@texaswatchdog.org or 512-557-3800. Follow him on Twitter @olson_curt.

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Photo of El Paso via the El Paso Pubic Library.

Socorro City Council members join the madness of scandal-plagued El Paso area
Friday, Jul 06, 2012, 02:30PM CST
By Curt Olson
handcuffs

El Pasoans have no shortage of scandals involving public officials or public employees.

Take these three recent reports from the El Paso Times:

But not to be outdone, Socorro City Council members provided fireworks of their own on Thursday. Socorro is a city of about 30,000 just to the southeast of El Paso, and also shares a border with Mexico.

Earlier this week the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office launched an investigation of three council representatives and a city police sergeant regarding reimbursements they sought from the city.

The events of the week spilled into Thursday’s City Council meeting. For example, Times reporter Daniel Borunda chronicled how council members bickered even over mundane matters.

From the El Paso Times:

Bickering over even minor matters during a meeting on Thursday showed a clearly divided Socorro City Council that has three members under investigation by the El Paso County Sheriff's Office.

The investigation comes as the council is sharply split into two factions, which turned a regular government meeting into confrontation on almost everything.

Council members interrupted each other and spoke over each other, and accusations flew furiously during Thursday's meeting.

Whatever El Pasoans call this, it doesn't appear to be the best government for their money.

***
Contact Curt Olson at curt@texaswatchdog.org or 512-557-3800. Follow him on Twitter @olson_curt.

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Photo of handcuffs by flickr user .v1ctor., used via a Creative Commons license.

El Paso ISD vendor got special treatment in bid process - the latest in string of troubles for the district
Friday, Apr 27, 2012, 02:56PM CST
By Mike Cronin
school supplies

El Paso school officials rigged the district’s contract-awarding system so executives at one company were the sole option, never were properly vetted and could pitch their bids directly to trustees, the El Paso Times reports today.

All those actions violate nationally accepted standards of procurement procedures.

New Beginnings of Texas Inc. “stamped out potential competition through a tailor-made bid process, and district officials never conducted a thorough evaluation of its work,” the Times’ Zahira Torres writes today.

The result: $3.2 million in El Paso Independent School District contracts during a five-year period for the company.

The story raises questions about whether New Beginnings had the experience to run the district’s drop-out prevention programs. The district’s attendance rate actually got slightly worse during the timeframe of the contract.

“New Beginnings of Texas Inc. did not have a storied record of providing dropout retention services when it obtained the contract at EPISD,” Torres writes. “Madrid listed ‘human services’ under a question that asked the nature of the company's business during early bids.”

The company was eventually dropped in 2007, but only after the district had been so hands-off that it let a New Beginnings employee serve as the evaluator for the company’s performance.

The Times unearthed the findings by combing through “hundreds of documents” requested under the Texas Public Information Act.

The revelations are merely the most recent examples of wrongdoing in a public-school system wracked by scandal during the past year.
 
Interim Superintendent Terri Jordan on Tuesday publicly “admitted that student testing policies had been manipulated to avoid accountability,” according to a Times story.

And school district officials refused to release public documents for months after federal law-enforcement officers indicted the former superintendent, Lorenzo García, in July.

Federal investigators have “accused García of steering a $450,000 no-bid contract to Tracy Rose, a woman with whom he allegedly had a personal relationship, and her Houston company Infinity Resources & Associates,” the Times reported in February. “The indictment states that García had a personal financial interest in the company.”

García’s trial date is June 18. He has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud, mail fraud and aiding and abetting theft from programs receiving federal funds.

The owners of New Beginnings, Cirilo "Chilo" Madrid and Ruben "Sonny" Garcia, “are the latest in a string of once well-respected local business leaders and public officials who have been indicted in the FBI's ongoing public corruption investigation. The two have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial,” Torres wrote.

Scandal involving the same players also has tainted El Paso County governance. Madrid and Garcia “face charges of bribing county government officials on an unrelated contract,” Torres reported.

***
Contact Mike Cronin at mike@texaswatchdog.org or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelccronin or @texaswatchdog.

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Photo of school supplies by flickr user MomMaven, used via a Creative Commons license.

El Paso ISD officials can't get story straight on who called for audit - which found evidence of fudging with student transcripts
Tuesday, Apr 10, 2012, 10:41AM CST
By Steve Miller
books

Conflicting statements, possible violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act and altered scholastic transcripts all come bundled in a report from the El Paso Times stemming from a internal audit of the El Paso Independent School District.

The review found improprieties in transcripts for students at one high school, insinuating that the grades and grade levels had been inflated at either a teaching or administrative level.

The report found that 24 of 77 students reviewed were moved from the 9th to 11th grade without the proper number of credits. Thirty students took the wrong state assessment test based on their grade level.

One administrator, Myrna Gamboa, claimed to auditors that she was not properly trained and was not clear on the crediting system.

“She was unaware of how to read certain areas of the transcript which led her to assess a higher grade level than what was listed,” the audit stated.

The auditors at one point sought guidance from the Texas Education Agency, which “could not provide a definitive response” to questions regarding grade level and assessment. The TEA has also been hesitant to police allegations of cheating on state tests.

“They recommended the district have good local policy and keep good records,” the report said.

The audit has ignited a blaze of blame about how the whole audit was even authorized. Superintendent Terri Jordan told the Times that the audit was ordered be her predecessor, Lorenzo Garcia. One open records attorney noted that such an action without a public vote would be a violation of the Open Meetings Act.

Next Jordan said in a statement that the audit came from the district’s board of trustees. But the Times found no mention of such an action in board minutes.

The district has on occasion flaunted state transparency laws, and Garcia faces federal charges of mail fraud and aiding and abetting theft from programs receiving federal funds. The feds claim he steered a no-bid $450,000 contract to a woman and business he was personally tied to.

***
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

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Photo of books by flickr user cseeman, used via a Creative Commons license.

El Paso ISD withheld public records of company's no-bid contract, failed to seek AG ruling
Monday, Nov 07, 2011, 12:09PM CST
By Steve Miller
money

It’s not enough to pay the $1,000-a-month cell phone allowance of an indicted superintendent at the El Paso school district. Officials there apparently have to break the state’s open records law, too.

The El Paso Times sought records related to the El Paso Independent School District's dealings with a Houston company called Infinity Resources & Associates in December 2009. The district failed to comply and did not seek a ruling from the state Attorney General’s office, according to this story.

The district finally released the records following the July indictment of Superintendent Lorenzo García, a year-and-a-half later.

“From what I've heard, there is sufficient evidence of criminal negligence to warrant an investigation by the El Paso County district attorney," Houston First Amendment lawyer Joe Larsen told the newspaper for Sunday’s story. The information was obviously there. You've got (a later) FBI investigation, so there is plenty of motive to try to throw the requestor off the track here. That's suspicious because, ultimately, this thing drew law enforcement attention."

The district declined to speak about the possible infraction, but a school board member told the Times that the problem could have been “human error.”

Garcia is accused of engineering a no-bid contract with Infinity, which is operated by former Houston Independent School District employee Tracy Ledford, also known as Tracy Rose.

“Tracy Ledford was employed with the district from 11/2/2009 to 9/1/2010," the district said in an e-mail to Texas Watchdog. She was hired as a curriculum specialist, and her position was eliminated Sept. 1, 2010, the district said.
 
***
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

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Photo of money and magnifying glass by flickr user Images_of_Money, used via a Creative Commons license.
El Paso superintendent collects $1,000-a-month cellphone allowance while under indictment for fraud, embezzlement
Monday, Oct 10, 2011, 03:54PM CST
By Steve Miller
cell phone

One thousand dollars is a mortgage payment, not a phone allowance.

Unless you’re a public school district administrator accused in a federal indictment of planning to defraud the district.


Suspended El Paso Independent School District Superintendent Lorenzo García was placed on leave pending the charges in August, but in accordance with district rules, he continues to receive his $1,000-a-month cell phone allotment and tap his accrued sick days as needed. At a pay rate of $280,314 a year, that means a cool $1,183 a day.

 

Meanwhile, the El Paso district has grappled with finance problems, and earlier this year laid off 116 employees.


The layoff plans were announced by Garcia in September 2010, just short of a year before Garcia’s indictment was handed up.


The feds allege that the district, through Garcia, in 2006 paid $360,000 for simple math instructional materials touted as "specialized data" under a no-bid contract. Garcia has pleaded not guilty.


The vendor was Houston-based Infinity Resources & Associates. Good story here from when it was all going down. 


Authorities say Garcia also failed to disclose his financial stake in the company and a personal relationship with the owner of the company, who has not been charged. The El Paso newspaper does an excellent deep dive on Garcia and the vendor here.


Garcia's next hearing is in January.

 

***

Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.


Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpaceDiggFriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of cell phone by flickr user craig1black, used via a Creative Commons license.

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Diigo: United raises fares by up to $10 per round trip - Business - http://t.co/kWY8gwPV http://t.co/bw25JP5R
News 4 WOAI | 7 years 10 months
If you see news in or around San Antonio 'SEND IT' to @NEWS4WOAI here: http://t.co/uMqbMXQv OR email us at: NEWSDESK@WOAITV.COM
swamplot | 7 years 10 months
Mining Houston Garbage for Recycling and Compost Gold http://t.co/HMMBArMX
swamplot | 7 years 10 months
Daily Demolition Report: Tulane Highway http://t.co/JXmkSx11
KFDA NewsChannel10 | 7 years 10 months
Obama and Romney: Where they stand on the issues http://t.co/y3VrPfkM
Williamson County | 7 years 10 months
Mental Health Awareness Week FREE Webinar:"Understanding Depression-How to Help You or a Loved One" Thurs,Oct 11@1pm-https://t.co/YUWi19WY
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