EL PASO, Texas (AP) — Texas' top education official on Thursday appointed a board of managers to take over the duties of the embattled El Paso Independent School District's board of trustees in the wake of a cheating scandal that put the district on probation.
The measure is the harshest sanction that a school district can face before it is closed and annexed to another district.
"It's only happened in nine instances since the '90s. It's a matter of last resort when there is enough evidence that it's better for the district and the students to have a more steady hand in charge," explained DeEtta Culbertson, a spokeswoman at the Texas Education Agency.
Education Commissioner Michael Williams said the decision was taken to regain the public trust.
"We want to send the message that we want the best for the student ... that we will not allow cheating in the state by teachers and administrators," Williams said.
The current board of trustees will remain in place, but the newly appointed board of managers will have "all the responsibility and authority," Williams said.
Because the trustees are elected officials, the move still needs clearance from the U.S. Department of Justice. The new board can stay in place for up to two years, but it is possible TEA will go back on its decision once four of the seven members are replaced in an upcoming election in May.
Four out of five members of the new board have already been named and a fifth member will be named next week, Williams added. They 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; and Judy Castleberry, who has served as the TEA-appointed monitor for the district since it was put on probation in August.
The district was put on probation in August as a result of a widespread cheating scheme in which school district officials would hold back, promote or coerce students into leaving school to get rid of underperforming students and improve the district's high-stakes testing scores.
Former School 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 grades accountability tests. He was sentenced to 3 ½ years in prison in October.
The district thus gave the appearance of improving academic performance, meaning it was able to qualify for more federal funds. Garcia personally received at least $56,000 in bonuses
School district Superintendent Vernon Butler called Thursday's action an "opportunity for a reborn ISD, a new challenge."