Test scandal gets ex-school chief 3 years in prison

Posted Oct. 05, 2012, at 7:42 p.m.

EL PASO, Texas — A federal judge sentenced the former superintendent of El Paso Independent School District to more than three years in prison Friday for his participation in a conspiracy to improve the district’s high-stakes tests scores by removing low-performing students from classrooms.

Lorenzo Garcia’s scheme to prevent hundreds of sophomores from taking the accountability tests fooled authorities into believing that academic standards had improved in his West Texas district — resulting in a boost in federal funds and personal bonuses totaling at least $56,000.

Garcia pleaded guilty to two fraud counts in June; one in the testing scandal and another in which he misled the school board so that his lover would receive a $450,000 no-bid contract to produce school materials.

On Friday, the judge sentenced him to 3½ years in prison on each fraud count, to be served at the same time. Garcia also was fined $56,500 — the exact amount of money he took as a bonus from the district for its success on test scores.

“As superintendent, I am responsible for everything that went on in my district,” Garcia said before the sentence was read to him by federal judge David Briones.

Court documents indicate at least six other people helped Garcia organize the testing scheme. An FBI investigation continues.

Mark Morgan, the FBI director for El Paso, said outside the court building that the investigation continues, but he would not comment on whether more arrests are coming.

The 3½-year sentence had been agreed upon in a plea deal between Garcia and the government. Robert Pitman, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas, described it as “fair” and “a significant deterrent.”

“Garcia abused the trust of the citizens of El Paso. He shamefully turned his time and attention to fraudulently obtaining performance based bonuses for himself. Today, he was held accountable for this breach of trust,” Pitman said in a statement.

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. He had one employee photograph students crossing the border so they could be forced out on the grounds that they were living in Mexico rather than within the school district.

The whole idea, said former state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, was to make those students “disappear” so they would not be counted among the students who were tested. Although these actions happened to a degree across the district, the most and worst cases happened at Bowie High School.

In the short term, the strategy worked. Test scores improved in most high schools and the district’s overall rating improved from “academically acceptable” in 2005 to “recognized” in 2010 — the second-highest rating possible.

Three educators and two students affected by the scheme testified before Garcia was sentenced about the hardships they faced during his tenure.

Stephen Lane, the former principal of Jefferson High School, said Garcia came after him “with a vengeance” when he resisted the scheme. Lane recalled the moment after Garcia fired him and had police escort him from his office. The then-superintendent told Lane to have a great weekend and say hello to his wife.

“I can’t think of anyone you helped other than a few misguided mistresses, your cabinet and yourself,” Lane said. He added later, “I could stand today here and tell you to have a great weekend and say hello to whatever female is with you, but that would be childish.”

Jeanette Valenzuela, a 20-year-old former Bowie High School student, transferred from neighboring Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, with grades she thought would put her in 10th or 11th grade. But instead, she was placed in the ninth grade.

“They said it was because I had no English. But now I see what happened with my grades, why I was flunked,” she said. Valenzuela dropped out and became pregnant three months later. Now she works in a clothing store in downtown El Paso.

“I want to go back to school, so I can provide for myself and my child,” she said.

The Texas Education Agency cleared Garcia in 2010 of allegations made by Shapleigh. But in late 2011, the El Paso Times filed a Freedom of Information Act request for correspondence between the federal Education Department and the school district. When the attorney general ruled that the records must be released, the district acknowledged the scandal.

State officials placed the district on probation, named a monitor to oversee it and said the schools showed “utter disregard” for the students’ needs.

Other large districts have been ensnared in scandals to raise test scores, most recently in Atlanta, where educators gave answers to students or changed answers after tests were completed. But none has been so brazen as to cast off low-scoring students.

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