New weapon in fighting cheating schools

New weapon in fighting cheating schools

The scenario sounds all too familiar. A widespread cheating scandal as waves of allegations reveal corrupt school district officials not only knew about the misconduct but actively directed it. Shocking financial improprieties involving a former teacher, a woman who goes by multiple names depending on which form she is filling out. A board of trustees at best unwilling or unable to stand up to wrongdoers, at worst complicit in their misdeeds. Multiple investigations by the Texas Education Agency that finally shine a light on these dark deeds.

In this case, it was not the still-unfolding scandal at the Beaumont Independent School District but another series of misdeeds at a different school district.

This scandal alone was more than enough to convince the Texas Legislature to set aside partisan wrangling and pass a bill that provided for the removal from office of a member of the board of trustees of an independent school district. SB 122 amended Section 87.012 of the Local Government Code to add school board trustees to the list of elected officials who could be removed from office for misconduct by a state district judge.

The bill’s primary sponsor was Sen. Jose Rodriguez, a Democrat from El Paso. He was joined by state representatives Marisa Marquez and Joseph Moody, both Democrats, and Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, a Republican, all from the El Paso area.

Not a controversial bill, it sailed through House and Senate committees without drawing a single vote against the measure then unanimously passed both houses before being quietly signed by Gov. Rick Perry.

It was no coincidence the bill’s sponsors were all legislators from El Paso because the scandal that prompted it involved the El Paso Independent School District, but the events in the westernmost county in the state should sound a warning for parents and teachers throughout Texas.

Lorenzo Garcia, the former superintendent of schools in El Paso, has been sitting in a federal prison since last year, convicted of fraud and reporting bogus test scores for financial gain. Evidence showed Garcia schemed to inflate test scores at Bowie High School by not testing the poorest performing 10th graders, changing failing grades to passing grades and forcing struggling students to drop out of school altogether. It worked. Bowie’s rating quickly went from “failing” to “academically acceptable.”

The Texas Education Agency conducted two investigations with blinders on and failed to detect the cheating, but the third time was the charm. TEA Commissioner Michael Williams said the response by the El Paso school board was “wholly insufficient” and stripped the elected school board of its authority. He appointed a five-member “board of managers” to oversee the district for at least two years. He has also asked the state auditor to examine why TEA investigators cleared Garcia in the first place.

Then the FBI uncovered another Garcia scheme — a bogus $450,000 contract he awarded to a crony named Tracy Rose, allegedly a teacher and former girlfriend who also uses the names Tracy Hannah Ledford, Tracy Mandell, Tracy Denane Davis and Tracy Schillaci.

Any direct comparison between the El Paso ISD scandal and alleged misdeeds by any other school district would be premature. In that case, parents and teachers were finally able to raise their voices loud enough to attract the attention of state and federal officials and bring down a corrupt house of cards.