DOJ Approves School Board Replacement for Troubled El Paso

The US Justice Department gave its OK to a plan to oust the locally elected school board in El Paso, Texas due to uncovered instances of cheating in the district pubic school. The running of the El Paso Independent School District will be taken over by state-appointed managers, Yahoo News reports.

The plan to replace elected officials with those appointed by the governor, who would then serve for up to 2 years, needed preclearance from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division because of the voting rights law. The Texas Education Agency got its go-ahead from the feds this Monday and the new board members will meet for the first time next Tuesday.

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 move allowed the district to look like they were performing better than expectated, something that resulted in more than $56,000 of additional performance bonuses for Garcia. In October he was sentenced to more than three years in prison for the crime.

Members of the ousted board are not going quietly. The president Isela Castanon-Williams, said that the board is looking at its legal options to overturn the decision by the TEA to replace the trustees with appointees. She added that the DOJ’s approval of the switch sets a very bad precedent and could ricochet in the future on school districts all around Texas and the country.

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.