Education official sends ultimatum to El Paso schools
EL PASO, TX -- Texas' top education official warned the El Paso Independent School District that it will face harsh sanction if it fails to find and punish those who helped the former superintendent carry out a scheme to improve the district's high-stakes tests scores by removing low-performing students from classrooms.
"I want to see aggressive and immediate action" by the district to find and punish those responsible, said Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams, who initially shared his warning for the district earlier this week in an interview with the El Paso Times.
The move comes after the district's former superintendent, Lorenzo Garcia, was sentenced last week to more than three years in prison for his participating in the conspiracy. He had pleaded guilty in June to two counts of fraud.
Williams called for the district to identify wrongdoers and conduct an "entire inquiry into the district, to know why this happened, who was involved and the consequences for students and teachers."
Stronger sanctions could include a conservator to oversee the district. That person would have more power than the monitor already put in place by the agency. Also, a board of managers could take over some of the functions of the board of trustees or even install a new school board.
"There is no tool that is off the table," Williams said in an interview Thursday night.
Former state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, who spearheaded the effort to investigate the cheating scandal, says a network of school officials received raises and bonuses in exchange for their participation in the scheme. Those teachers and officials who pushed back faced retaliation by Garcia and other school district officials close to him.
Court documents indicate at least six other people helped Garcia organize the testing scheme, and the FBI has said the investigation continues.
So far, the district has not punished any employees.
The Texas Education Agency placed the district on probation and named a monitor to oversee it in August.
"There are several tools in my toolkit. One of them is the monitor, who is my eyes and ears in the district," Williams said.
The district did not immediately respond to several requests from The Associated Press on what it plans to do to avoid further sanctions by the agency.
The president of the school board, Isela Castanon-Williams, told the El Paso Times the board had been under the "distinct impression" the FBI did not want it to take action while the investigation was under way.
FBI spokesman in El Paso Michael Martinez said the federal agency never instructed the district not to investigate or punish those involved in the scheme.
"I will not debate if it happened or not," said Williams regarding the possibility that the FBI might have requested inaction by the district. "They said they were cuffed; now they have been uncuffed. I want to see action."
Garcia, who was hired in 2006, implemented a plan with several other administrators that allowed for the pre-testing of 10th-graders to identify those who were likely to fail the standardized tests. The method was intended to keep low-performing students from taking high-stakes state tests used to measure its performance under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Tenth-graders who performed poorly on the pre-tests were held back in the ninth grade or promoted to the 11th grade before the state tests were administered. To keep other students from taking the 10th grade tests, the district held those who recently transferred from Mexico in the ninth grade, told older students to leave and obtain a GED elsewhere and threatened some students with fines for allegedly living in Mexico, outside the district's area.
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