New board replaces ousted El Paso school trustees

May 8, 2013 2:05:07 AM PDT
The state-appointed board created to manage El Paso schools after a cheating scandal ensnarled several local officials held its first meeting on Tuesday, with Texas' top education official asking members to help restore the public's trust.

After four of the new board's five members were sworn in, State Education Commissioner Michael Williams said he would visit El Paso regularly to speak with business, community and education leaders to gauge the progress of the board of managers.

"Restore the confidence and trust. That's what I ask you, what I challenge you to do and, more importantly, what I demand of you," said Williams, head of the Texas Education Agency.

The El Paso Independent School District was put on probation in August after a widespread cheating scandal was exposed. District officials were accused of holding students back, promoting them or coercing them into leaving school to get rid of underperforming students and improve the district's scores on standardized tests.

That gave the appearance of improving academic performance, which qualified the district for more federal funds. Several officials resigned or were fired, and ex-Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia -- who received at least $56,000 in bonuses as a result of the improved test scores -- is serving 3 years in prison for fraud.

In addition, the state stripped the school district's board of trustees of its power and appointed the board of managers in its place. Such a move has occurred only a handful of times in Texas, and usually took place before a district was shut down. Williams said the aim isn't to shutter the El Paso Independent School District -- the state's ninth-largest school district -- but to strengthen it.

The board of managers can remain in place for as many as two years. Williams didn't detail any specific milestones or speculate how long it would take the new board to regain the public's trust, but he said members' work could be done in less than two years.

Members of the board of trustees still hold their elected posts, though they currently hold no power over the school district. Williams, who will decide when trustees' duties are restored, noted that the move was made only after being approved by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The president of the board of trustees, Isela Castanon-Williams, attended Tuesday's meeting but sat in the back of the room.

"We (the ousted trustees) are the ones elected, we represent the people and we will continue to attend the meetings," she said.

Previously scheduled elections for four of the board of trustees' seven seats will still be held Saturday. The winners won't immediately take office, but Williams encouraged local residents to vote, stressing that those who get elected would eventually lead the district.

"At some point in time these individuals will take over," Williams said. He did not say if the election's outcome would impact on how long the board of managers stays in charge, saying: "We'll see what happens."

The members of the board of managers who were sworn in on Tuesday were Carmen Arrieta-Candelaria, chief financial officer for the city of El Paso; state Rep. Dee Margo; Blanca Enriquez, executive director of the Region 19 Education Service Center Head Start Program; and Judy Castleberry, who has served as the Texas Education Agency-appointed monitor for the district since it was put on probation.

Ed Archuleta, who has served as head of the city's water utilities company since 1989, also was appointed to the board but couldn't attend Tuesday's meeting.

Williams said it was a solid group of people, adding: "I'm not used to giving myself grades, but I will. I think we did a pretty good job."

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