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Region 19 leader sternly asks EPISD board ‘take responsibility,’ apologize

The leader of the School-Board-created task force meant to help the El Paso Independent School District following the cheating scandal of its former Superintendent, sternly demanded the Board take responsibility and apologize for the illegal acts of its former leader.

Jimmy Vasquez stood with all the members of the task force behind him as he addressed the board Tuesday night. The task force formed at the request of the school board to recommend ways it could improve the district after former Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia cheated children out of an education and on Tuesday, the group asked the district which of their recommendations the Board had implemented.

Made up of businessmen and a member of the military, the task force gave its recommendations to the board on September 25.

Vasquez began by expressing dismay at why the board members have not sent out apology letters to the community, one of the requests made by the task force. “I’m not saying that they should plead guilty to what Garcia did. Say we’re sorry that it happened under our watch,” Vasquez said during an interview. He told the board they “command” the school board. “At the top, you have to take responsibility for what happens,” he said.

Board member David Dodge responded by implying it was a systematic problem that allowed Garcia to cheat. He said the Texas Education Agency and the Department of Education also did not spot the cheating. “I know the difference between being a board member and being a commander,” Dodge told Vasquez. The board member also said a system of standardized testing allowed the cheating. “I’m so sorry he was a crook… I’m so sorry we are training a generation of great test takers instead of great thinkers.”

Vasquez was not swayed. “The law is clear. You command. You’re in charge. Unless you want me to walk out believing it’s nobody’s fault that Garcia cheated. He did something wrong and he should have been found out. I will not accept that you did not have control of that,” Vasquez responded.

The Board President, Isela Castanon Williams, has apologized publicly and did so again at Tuesday’s meeting. So did others on the board. “I take responsibility the scandal broke on our watch. We are absolutely committed to changing the culture that allowed that. Certainly not a day goes by where I don’t ask what else could I have done,” she told Vasquez.

Sending letters of apology is not fiscally responsible, Castanon Williams said during an interview. “The school district doesn’t have the finances to do that kind of a mailout and certainly I think the board members would feel uncomfortable using school district funds and it would be a matter several thousand dollars per trustee.”
The board said it has implemented some of the recommendations, such as forming a community advisory committee to assist in the search for a Superintendent. The new committee was present at Tuesday’s board meeting. It consists of 19 community members, more than the recommended 7. And the members include someone from the Retired Teachers Association, the University of Texas at El Paso, Fort Bliss, El Paso Community College, representatives of each of the Board member districts, five employee organizations and the Chamber of Commerce.

The task force recommended the district form a public integrity unit that would consist of the Internal Auditor, a compliance Supervisor and an Ombudsman. The Board, instead, said it has strengthened the Internal Auditor’s department by committing $190,000 to hire a compliance supervisor and a compliance specialist. Castanon Williams said the changes will have the same effect as the task force’s recommendations. “We have restructured completely that office,” Castanon Williams said.

Vasquez had another concern. He said that the leader of the company the board recently hired to oversee test administration had called his office to ask how the job was done. Last month, board members awarded a $375,485 contract to Oak Hill Techology, a company out of Austin. Vasquez said the head of Oak Hill called him the day after the contract was awarded asking how to conduct the services they were hired for. “How do you vet a company and they don’t know how to do the job? It still shows they’re (the board) not on top of things,” Vasquez said.
Castanon Williams defended the decision by saying the board was forced to award the contract because it was a TEA directive. “We would not have hired that company if that had not been a TEA mandate and so we were between a rock and a hard place because we had to do the testing now, yet there was only one company that bid.”

The TEA sent a monitor to EPISD this fall to advise the district on measures that could prevent cheating. Hiring an outside firm to oversee test administration was one of the orders of the monitor.

The task force also recommended the board hire an internal attorney and the district is now looking for candidates.

EPISD’s former superintendent, Lorenzo Garcia, this year, pleaded guilty to steering an expensive, no-bid district contract to his then mistress. He also pleaded guilty to manipulating the district’s test scores by not allowing who he perceived as low performing students to enroll or forcing them to skip or be held back a grade. Garcia would get bonuses when the district met state and federal standards that included passing the tests.

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