EPISD board President Isela Castaon-Williams, left, along with EPISD trustees David Dodge, Russell Wiggs and Patricia Hughes listen to Richard Dayoub, on
EPISD board President Isela Castaon-Williams, left, along with EPISD trustees David Dodge, Russell Wiggs and Patricia Hughes listen to Richard Dayoub, on screen, president and CEO of the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce at a board meeting. (Times file photo)
›› Highest-paid employees in EPISD, 2011-12
›› Highest-paid employees in EPISD, 2012-13
›› Search EPISD employee salaries, 2011-12
›› Search EPISD employee salaries, 2012-13

AUSTIN -- Two Bowie High School administrators and a counselor were suspended with pay Friday as El Paso Independent School District officials continue to investigate their roles in a districtwide cheating scandal.

The administrators are Anna Luisa Kell, an assistant principal in charge of guidance and instruction, and Johnnie Vega, an assistant principal who publicly admitted to the El Paso Times in August that he helped remove students as part of a scheme hatched by former Superintendent Lorenzo García. Felipe Cobos, a counselor at the South Side campus, was also suspended.

All three will continue receiving their salaries until the district finishes its investigation into their involvement. Vega earns about $83,000 annually, Kell makes $79,000 a year, and Cobos is paid more than $64,000 annually, according to records obtained by the El Paso Times through the state's Public Information Act.

Vega said school district officials did not tell him how long he will be on paid administrative leave, but he hopes to return to Bowie.

"I figured since I was honest and I came forward and I tried to bring attention onto the situation that I would be allowed to continue working," Vega said when reached by telephone Friday afternoon.

Both Kell and Cobos confirmed that they had been placed on administrative leave but declined to comment further on the matter.

"I was told not to comment by the district," Cobos said. Cobos is not related to Bowie's interim principal, Nick Cobos.

The suspensions are the latest disciplinary steps taken by the district since interim Superintendent Vernon Butler was hired in October. Former Bowie Principal Jesus Chavez resigned on Monday, and Myrna Gamboa, a former director in the Priority Schools Division, resigned Thursday just hours before the school board was set to vote on whether to fire her from the district.

"My decision to place these individuals on administrative leave is based on my preliminary assessment as EPISD interim superintendent of previously disclosed internal audit reports, statements and interviews that I have requested that warrant further review for possible violations of the State Educators' Code of Conduct," Butler said in a statement.

School board trustees and administrators have been under pressure from the community and from the Texas Education Agency to take disciplinary action against employees who helped carry out García's cheating scheme. The scheme kicked some students out of school, kept others from enrolling and manipulated grade levels for students to keep them from taking the sophomore test that determines whether a school is meeting federal standards.

García pleaded guilty in June to conspiracy to commit mail or wire fraud charges that included steering a $450,000 no-bid contract to his mistress and working with six unnamed and unindicted co-conspirators to rig the federal accountability system. He was sentenced last month to three and a half years in prison and is now at a federal holdover facility in Oklahoma City.

Disciplinary action against district employees who participated in the cheating scheme could extend beyond the six unnamed people mentioned in García's charging document.

So far, the district's disciplinary actions have focused primarily on administrators who worked at Bowie High.

"It doesn't surprise me where the district is going, and it appears that only Bowie and the people who work at Bowie have been affected," Vega said. "This wasn't an isolated incident; this was districtwide."

Vega said administrators who suspended him told him that they would also look at taking personnel action against other employees who were not tied to Bowie.

"I'm trying to have confidence that they'll be objective and they'll look at all the schools and not just Bowie," Vega said.

Vega was the first EPISD employee to publicly admit participating in the scheme led by García to artificially inflate student test scores and make it appear as if campuses were meeting state and federal accountability standards.

He told the El Paso Times three months ago that he and others who feared for their jobs obeyed district and campus directives that kept some students from enrolling, forced others to drop out and boosted graduation rates by awarding credits to yet other students who should have failed courses for not showing up.

On Friday, Vega said he understands that he deserves some sort of reprimand but he wants to keep his job. He said he was hoping that his admission and willingness to cooperate with investigators would show that he regrets what happened.

"They gave me some hope when they stated that they were interested in talking to me further, and I assumed that meant that they wanted to know about what I knew about other situations in the district," Vega said.

Vega admitted that he helped push out a family of three brothers, who were interviewed by the El Paso Times, from Bowie High by telling them they had too many absences and were too problematic.

"It occurred because of a lot of duress from administration from the top down," Vega said about his participation in the scheme. "At the time I didn't realize how bad things were going to get, and I was fearful for retaliation from them."

Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams cited the incident in an interview with the El Paso Times last month as a disregard for the human rights of the very students administrators are supposed to be helping.

Williams said the treatment of the three brothers and other students profiled by the Times "should outrage all of us."

The Texas Education Agency cleared the EPISD of wrongdoing in 2010 in response to allegations by then state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh that the district was "disappearing" students at low-performing campuses to skirt state and federal accountability standards.

But an internal district audit obtained by the El Paso Times in April revealed grade and grade-level manipulations that were reported by former Bowie counselor Patricia Scott.

Scott said she looked at the transcripts of 77 students in September 2009 and in October 2009, which is the month that determines which accountability tests students will take that school year. Scott said in some cases she found students whose credits were lowered from one month to the next, keeping them from taking the sophomore test that counted toward federal accountability.

Scott told the El Paso Times in August that she reported some of those discrepancies to Kell, the other assistant principal who was placed on paid administrative leave.

Noely Hernandez, who was also interviewed by the El Paso Times in August, accused Kell and Chavez of trying to keep her from enrolling. Hernandez said that once the district forced campus administrators to admit her, Kell and Chavez made her feel unwelcomed and would ask her whether she felt embarrassed being in a classroom with students who were so much younger.

She said she dropped out of school after she got pregnant.

Kell declined to comment Friday, but in an interview with the El Paso Times in August, she said she had done nothing wrong and that the federal investigations would bear that out.

Kell said then that she did not see all of the 77 student transcripts that Scott found questionable. She said since she did not know the names of the students on the transcripts, she could not say whether Scott had reported at least a portion of the discrepancies.

District officials have said disciplinary action will continue against employees found to have participated in the cheating scheme.

"As I have emphasized, much more work remains to be done to restore the public's confidence, but I am committed to taking the necessary steps to help EPISD emerge from this tragedy as a stronger district that the community can be proud of once again," Butler said in a statement Friday.

EPISD received a warning last month from Williams, who was appointed to lead the Texas Education Agency in September, that the district risked further state sanctions if it did not act quickly to discipline employees who participated in the scheme.

TEA in August lowered the EPISD's accreditation status to probation and appointed a monitor to watch district operations and report findings to the state.

School board trustees for months said they did not plan to pursue their own investigation into wrongdoing at the district and would wait for the results of the investigation into the cheating by the FBI and the U.S. Department of Education before taking disciplinary action.

Trustee David Dodge in October said the FBI had kept the district from conducting its own investigation and only gave EPISD leaders the go-ahead after the Texas Education Agency called on the district to fire several employees. The FBI later responded to Dodge's claim by saying that the federal agency never kept EPISD from investigating or enforcing misconduct that violated district policies.

Zahira Torres may be reached at ztorres@elpasotimes.com; 512-479-6606.