Former school district chief gets 3.5 years in test scandal

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, federal judge David Briones sentenced him to 3½ years in prison on each fraud count, to be served at the same time. Garcia also was ordered to pay $180,000 in restitution and fined $56,500 – the amount he received as a bonus from the district for its success on test scores.

Court documents indicate at least six other people helped Garcia organize the testing scheme.

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, 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. The method, known as the “Bowie Model” because it was employed with the most force at Bowie High School, was intended to keep low performing students from taking high-stakes state tests used to measure its performance under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Other large districts also 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.

After the scandal came to light last year, Texas officials placed the district on probation, named a monitor to oversee it and said the schools showed “utter disregard” for the students’ needs.

In El Paso, 10th graders who performed poorly on the pre-tests were held back in the ninth grade or promoted to the 11th grade before the state tests were administered. To keep other students from taking the 10th grade tests, the district held those who recently transferred from Mexico in the ninth grade, told older students to leave and obtain a GED elsewhere and threatened some students with fines for allegedly living in Mexico, outside the El Paso School District’s area.

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

In some cases, when the district needed to improve its graduation rate, it gave students credit for computer-based classes or “turbo-mesters,” which were 90-minute sessions in which students earned a full semester worth of credits.

“One girl got two semesters in three hours, in the last day of school, while her teacher was collecting books,” said former principal Stephen Lane, one of five people allowed to testify before Briones sentenced Garcia.

The whole idea, said former state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, was to make students “disappear” before they were tested.

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.

Former students, their relatives and teachers affected by the scandal packed the courtroom for the sentencing.

Lane, the former principal of Jefferson High School, said Garcia came after him “with a vengeance” when he resisted the scheme. He 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 that 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 9th 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.

David Alvarado, who graduated from Bowie, said he was placed in ninth grade when he transferred from Ciudad Juarez.

“It was all repetition from what I already knew,” he said. He thought it would be better the next year, when he was almost immediately promoted from 10th to 11th grade.

“My biggest surprise came as I was preparing to graduate,” he said. “A friend of mine showed me the yearbook. It said I was a junior.” He graduated anyway.