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TEA report exposes widespread failings at Socorro ISD

El Paso Matters

by Claudia Lorena Silva, El Paso Matters

March 22, 2024

Update, 6:10 p.m.: This story has been updated with additional comments.

The Socorro Independent School District violated the Texas Education Code by graduating students who did not meet requirements, failing to disclose Trustee Paul Guerra’s connections to a vendor used by the district, and paying $283,000 in unauthorized stipends, according to a report released Friday by the Texas Education Agency.

The report was released after the board voted unanimously earlier this month to accept the appointment of one or more conservators to oversee the district and develop a corrective action plan in response to the TEA’s findings. Conservators appointed by the state have the authority to direct trustees and administrators, and overrule any of their decisions.

TEA has not yet appointed conservators for the district, which has 47,000 students.

As part of the plan, the TEA could change the district’s and its schools’ previous accountability ratings, which are used to grade academic performance and financial management. 

The report said Socorro officials had cooperated with the investigation.

“It should be noted that Socorro ISD’s Board of Trustees requested this report without any attempt to negotiate its content. The Board specifically, and commendably, cited its desire to be transparent with its stakeholders and further believed that the issuance of the report was necessary to be fully informed when making decisions to reform its district,” the report said.

TEA officials also said that Superintendent Nate Carman joined the district “after the substantiated violations occurred” and was “steadfast in his cooperation with this special investigation.” Carman, who was appointed superintendent in 2022, recently accepted a job with an Arizona school district and will leave Socorro in June.

In addition to finding violations that led to the appointment of one or more conservators, the report also mentioned a number of complaints made to TEA regarding board members and administrators. Those complaints – several of which involved Trustee Ricardo Castellano and his wife, Gabriela, then a teacher in the district – were considered closed by the district’s settlement agreement with TEA and were not resolved by investigators.

Guerra contested the investigation’s findings and told El Paso Matters he did nothing wrong.

SISD staff and board president Micheal Najera have not responded to requests for comments.

State Sen. Cesar Blanco, D-El Paso, said the report is a step toward repairing the district.

“Transparency and accountability are fundamental in public education and our students deserve nothing less. Socorro Independent School District’s decision to ask the Texas Education Agency to oversee district operations is a commendable step toward getting back on track, restoring trust, and advancing the well-being of students, teachers, and parents,” Blanco said. “While local governance will remain under SISD’s Board of Trustees and superintendent, our office is committed to working closely with SISD and TEA to promptly and effectively address any challenges and ensure our students receive the quality education they deserve to reach their full potential.”

Improper graduations

The TEA report, based on investigations dating back to 2020, outlined a series of failures in El Paso’s second-largest school district. The most serious is a finding that confirmed a report from the district’s internal auditor that at least 276 seniors – about 8% of the total graduates – were allowed to graduate in 2019 even though they lacked the credits required by state law.

The internal audit found improper graduations at all district high schools, though the greatest number were at Socorro High School. Jose Espinoza, who resigned in 2021, was Socorro ISD’s superintendent at the time.

Socorro Independent School District Superintendent José Espinoza congratulated a student at the opening of the Pebble Hills Early College campus in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Socorro ISD)

Socorro had been aware since 2013 of potential problems in the way it tracked high school students, and implemented policies to address the problems, the report said. 

“However, as will be referenced throughout this report, TEA investigators found that SISD administrators and staff failed to demonstrate sound adherence and lacked consistency in the implementation and monitoring of the revised policies and procedures,” the report said.

The investigation found that SISD incorrectly documented students’ academic records, resulting in at least 276 seniors graduating in Spring 2019 without meeting the local and state requirements. The TEA report only mentions 2019 and doesn’t allege improper graduations in other years.

In many of those cases, students did not earn credit because they got a failing grade below 70%, or missed too many classes. Texas law requires students to attend 90% of their classes to graduate. If they attend less than 90% but more than 75% of their classes, they can still graduate by completing a make-up plan approved by their principal.

In some cases, students completed their make-up plans, but were still not eligible for graduation because the district’s attendance committees did not verify their plans were completed until months after the ceremony.

Some students also did not meet graduation requirements because staff did not submit proper paperwork. SISD has a policy that allows two parts of a course to be averaged together to get a student a passing grade.

“For example, a student earning a 72 in the first semester of a course and a 68 the second semester would average out to a 70 and would be awarded credit for the entire course,” the report stated.

TEA investigators found that several students were not awarded credit under this policy because the forms were not submitted to initiate the process.

SISD did not contest any of the allegations about improper graduations in its response to TEA, according to the report.

A trustee’s failure to report potential conflict of interest

The investigation also found that Guerra, who has served on the board since 2010, failed to submit forms disclosing that he was a sales manager for Insco Distributing Inc. — a heating, ventilation, and air conditioning supplies company — between 2017 and 2020. Insco has been an approved vendor for SISD since 2015, according to the report. Guerra only submitted the required forms in 2016 and 2021.

Paul Guerra, Socorro ISD Board of Trustee

Under the Texas Education Code, school board members must disclose any potential conflicts of interest and refrain from discussing or voting on those issues if they make at least $2,500 in a year with a company doing business with the district.

Guerra told El Paso Matters that he filled out the forms every year since he took office in 2010, but the district did not keep a record of it.

“I submit those every year. Now we’re trying to find the records,” Guerra said. “Unfortunately, my mistake, I did not make a copy of the records but I did submit those.”

In October 2021, the board voted to approve a list of vendors — which included Insco — to provide heating, ventilation and air conditioning equipment for the district. 

Initially, SISD Trustee Pablo Barrera moved to approve the list without Insco, but Guerra argued the company should remain, the TEA report said. Guerra initially voted against the motion, but later abstained in a revote after he was reminded Insco was a part of the list.

Though Guerra officially abstained from voting, the TEA found that his comments during the deliberation were improper.

Guerra said he didn’t know he shouldn’t have taken part in those discussions.

“I shouldn’t have done that, which I had no idea,” Guerra said. “I should have just stayed quiet. But it was like ‘hey guys I filled out the paperwork, I’m OK.’”

Guerra said the only thing he discussed with the board was the fact that he did fill out the required conflict of interest forms.

In response to an open records request from El Paso Matters, SISD staff said the district had no records of any conflict of interest disclosure forms from 2022 to 2024.

In its response to TEA, Socorro ISD claimed the state’s conflict of interest laws only apply to elected officials themselves, so it had no obligation to file a disclosure on behalf of Guerra. The district also asserted that conflict of interest forms are only required to be submitted if a vendor gives a gift to a board member or staff. TEA officials rejected those arguments, and said both Guerra and the district had an obligation to note his potential conflict of interest.

Prior to the release of the investigation, Najera told El Paso Matters that he would take accountability and potentially resign if he was named in the report.

Guerra said he has no intentions of resigning.

Improper stipends

TEA investigators also found that Socorro ISD made 246 improper stipend payments to staff, totalling $283,000, between 2016 and 2022. The stipends were not authorized in the compensation plan approved by the school board in those years, the report said. 

The improper payments included nearly $78,000 in stipends for soccer coaches and over $33,000 for special education teachers. SISD did not contest any of the allegations about unauthorized stipends, according to the report. The report does not appear to seek repayment of the unauthorized stipends from employees who received them.

The TEA also investigated allegations that trustees and staff met outside of scheduled board meetings to discuss the results of the graduation audit and misused special education funds.

The report states investigators did not find enough evidence to determine there was a violation.

The Castellanos told El Paso Matters they believe they are being targeted by the school district and the TEA for previously blowing the whistle on the unapproved stipends.

They provided no evidence that they were being targeted

Other complaints to TEA

In addition to the 36-page report on the findings that led to the decision to appoint one or more conservators, TEA also released a three-page appendix of 11 other complaints involving Socorro ISD the agency had investigated since 2021. TEA said Socorro school board members had requested that the appendix be made public.

“These complaints … have not been fully investigated at the time of this Final Report. These complaints have been resolved through settlement and therefore investigations will not be completed in their regular course,” the report appendix said, adding that they are “forwarded to the Board and the appointed Conservator(s) as an aid to further necessary reforms.”

Trustees Ricardo Castellano, left, and Pablo Barrera return to the board room after taking a photo with Socorro Independent School District students during a board meeting in 2022. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

One of the complaints involved an audio recording of school board members Castellano and Barrera “discussing engaging in board overreach and retaliation against the principal of the campus on which one of their wives worked as a teacher. The audio recording appeared to refer to their desire to involve themselves in several personnel issues in the district,” according to the report appendix.

TEA opened this investigation on Jan. 10, 2023, about three weeks after El Paso Matters published a story about the recording, which Gabriela Castellano had submitted in 2021 as part of a grievance against her principal at Bill Sybert School. Ricardo Castellano is a retired El Paso police lieutenant.

Three of the complaints investigated by TEA came from Gabriela Castellano, alleging that her principal and other district officials were acting improperly. In one complaint, she alleged that a school board member who wasn’t identified “stared at her ‘with anger’ at a game.”

Three of the complaints – including the audio recording – involved allegations of wrongdoing by the Castellanos, including one by Gabriela Castellano’s principal. Gabriela Castellano is no longer employed by Socorro ISD.

Another complaint accuses school board member Barrera, a retired Border Patrol agent, of harassing a teacher after Barrera’s child wasn’t admitted to a magnet program.   

The most recent complaint was filed on Nov. 17, 2023, by Ricardo Castellano, alleging the board was violating its own policies on placing and removing items from the agenda.

Article Topic Follows: Education

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