Justice Department OKs ousting Texas school board

EL PASO, Texas (AP) — State-appointed managers will take over the El Paso Independent School District after the U.S. Department of Justice said it won’t oppose ousting the locally elected school board in the wake of a testing scandal at several of high schools.

Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams named the new board of managers in December, saying the replacements were needed to regain the public trust. Williams said he plans to attend the official swearing-in ceremony and the board’s first meeting next Tuesday.

The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division told the Texas Education Agency on Monday that it would not oppose the temporary transfer of powers from the district’s elected board of trustees to an appointed board of managers, which could serve for up to two years. The Texas agency needed federal clearance under the voting rights law.

“This has been a long process for all those involved,” Williams said in a written statement released Tuesday. “But with federal preclearance now secured, these five individuals, who are committed to restoring faith in the El Paso Independent School District, can finally begin their work.”

The interim superintendent, Vernon Butler, said at a news conference Tuesday that he will work with the new board to meet its goals. However, he also noted that the ousted board had made policy changes and accepted the resignation or fired employees involved in the scandal to “ensure the illegal actions of the former superintendent never occur in the district again.”

The decision to remove the El Paso school board — one of the most severe sanctions a district can receive — came after former Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia pleaded guilty in June to devising a scheme to keep hundreds of low-performing sophomores from taking the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test. Some students were held back in the ninth grade, while others were told to drop out before the 10th grade accountability tests. Before the removal of the board, the district had already been put on probation by the state.

The district thus gave the appearance of improving academic performance, meaning it was able to qualify for more federal funds. Garcia received at least $56,000 in performance bonuses. He was sentenced to more than three years in prison in October.

Isela Castanon-Williams, the ousted president of the board of trustees, said the board is looking into its legal options to fight the TEA’s decision. She called the Department of Justice’s approval a “huge violation of the voting rights of the people” and “a very dangerous precedent for school districts.”

Castanon-Williams said board members waited to dismiss Garcia until he had been arrested and evidence was presented in federal court because they were concerned about the possibility of lawsuits. She noted that audits by TEA had cleared him of wrongdoing.

Three of the school board’s seven seats are up for election on May 11; a fourth seat has a candidate who is uncontested. The other three ousted members are about halfway through their four-year terms.

TEA said elections will continue to be held to ensure an elected school board is in place to resume management of the district once the temporary managers leave. TEA has not said how long the temporary managers will serve, though they can run the district for up to two years.

The temporary managers are Ed Archuleta, who has served as head of the water utilities company since 1989; 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 TEA-appointed monitor for the district since it was put on probation in August.

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