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Copyright 2012, El Paso Times

A top El Paso Independent School District administrator said the state's highest education official refused his pleas two years ago for the Texas Education Agency to investigate transcript irregularities at Bowie High, despite looming accusations of cheating.

News from the state capitol.

James Anderson, assistant superintendent of high schools for the EPISD, said in an interview with the El Paso Times that then-Education Commissioner Robert Scott and other Texas Education Agency officials stymied his requests in June 2010 for the agency to investigate grade-level manipulations that could have artificially boosted the campus's performance on federal accountability measures.

"To me I was taking it to the highest level," Anderson said. "We work for the state of Texas. This is TEA. It went all the way to the commissioner of education."

In an interview last week with the El Paso Times, Anderson spoke publicly for the first time about the EPISD cheating scheme, including charges from current and former school district employees who accused him of either turning a blind eye or acting as a willing surrogate for then-Superintendent Lorenzo García.


Anderson said he felt compelled to respond to questions from the El Paso Times after the newspaper obtained documents through the state's Public Information Act in which he claims to have reported possible wrongdoing at Bowie High.

In an affidavit filed this summer as part of a grievance hearing for former Bowie High School Principal Jesus Chavez, Anderson said he talked in June 2010 to a TEA official and "asked if TEA would come to EPISD to do an independent audit," but his request was rejected by state officials.

His allegations suggest that state education officials knew about and perhaps willfully ignored possible grade manipulations at least at one EPISD school when they cleared the district of wrongdoing on two separate occasions in 2010.

TEA officials declined interview requests for this story, citing ongoing federal investigations of the cheating scheme. Scott, who stepped down as the head of the agency in July, did not respond to requests for an interview.

State Rep. Marisa Marquez, D-El Paso, has filed several bills for the coming legislative session in an attempt to address the cheating scandal, which shocked a community that seemed hardened by years of political corruption. Marquez said that if Anderson's allegations are true, TEA must share in the culpability.

"If there was gross negligence, meaning people knew exactly what was going on and did nothing about it and did not alert anybody, there should be some accountability for TEA with regard to EPISD," Marquez said.

She said that she expects the state's new education commissioner, Michael Williams, to follow through on his request last week to have an external auditor investigate the agency's failure to catch the cheating scandal.

Williams, who took office in September, last week requested that the state auditor examine how the TEA investigated EPISD in 2010.

The state auditor said his agency couldn't perform such an investigation until fiscal year 2014, but TEA officials said they will probably seek another independent investigator to perform the work sooner.

Lorenzo Garcia
Former El Paso Independent School District superintendent Lorenzo Garcia is escorted by his attorneys into the Albert Armendariz, Sr., Federal Courthouse where he was sentenced to three and a half years in federal prison. Garcia must also pay $180,00 (Ruben R. Ramirez / El Paso Times)

Marquez said Anderson's request for help from the TEA did not absolve him of his duty to stop a scheme that forced some students out of school, prevented some from enrolling and kept others in the ninth grade even if they had enough credits to be classified as sophomores.

"Anderson is claiming to have had all these conversations. Maybe the lesson to be learned there is he should have pushed forward," Marquez said. "He should have tried to go to his board. He should have tried to go to the public because there were students at stake."

Capturing cheating

On May 19, 2010, then-state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh began publicly accusing EPISD of "disappearing" low-performing students at Bowie High by deporting them, transferring them, failing them, changing their grade levels or sending them to charter schools to keep them from taking the sophomore test that counted toward federal accountability.

Around the same time, former Bowie counselor Patricia Scott began receiving calls from Shapleigh and the news media trying to find out what she knew about wrongdoing at the campus. Scott didn't respond to the calls from Shapleigh or the media, but she reported the phone calls to her boss, Kathleen Ortega, who advised her to talk to Anderson.

Anderson said it was in early June that he learned that eight months earlier, Ortega had stowed away 77 transcripts that Scott had given her, which proved grade and grade-level tampering at Bowie.

Anderson said that after reviewing the transcripts, he met with Bowie High Principal Jesus Chavez, who was unable to explain why grades and grade levels had been changed. Anderson said he pushed for an external audit of the transcript discrepancies in a meeting on June 11 with then-Superintendent Lorenzo García and EPISD Chief of Staff Terri Jordan, but the two said the investigation would be handled internally.

Anderson said he took a different approach after numerous failed attempts to persuade García and Jordan to seek an outside investigator. He said he decided to report the discrepancies to the TEA.

"Something like this, that to me indicates that there is some sort of manipulation or cheating. To me, I thought because we are being looked at by all sources, it just makes sense to go outside, but they didn't agree with me and when they didn't agree with me, I said, well, if you're not agreeing with me on the external, then I'm going to report to TEA," Anderson said.

The mention of reporting possible cheating to the state initially met resistance from García, according to Anderson, but eventually the then-superintendent relented. Anderson said García told him that he had a "buddy" at the TEA and that he would have his friend call Anderson about the matter.

"He did tell me that he knew someone at TEA who would be calling me," Anderson said. "I said, 'OK, but I'm still going to call.'"

Anderson said he eventually learned the name of García's friend -- Ray Glynn, a deputy commissioner at the state agency. Glynn, who is now the executive director of the Region 8 Education Service Center in Pittsburg, Texas, didn't respond to requests for comment.

Phone records obtained by the Times show that Glynn called García on May 19, 2010, the day Shapleigh filed his initial complaint with the U.S. Department of Education.

Those phone records show that Glynn called Anderson on June 15 -- the same day Anderson called the phone number of Cathy Kline, the director of test administration for TEA. He said that though Kline never called him back, he received a phone call on June 18 from Emi Johnson, the education agency's inspector general.

Phone records show several calls between her and Anderson that day, and also several calls between her and García.

Anderson acknowledged that his tone softened when he reported the discrepancies to Johnson and he did not go as far as to say he suspected cheating at the campus. But the EPISD administrator said he pointed out concerns about grade manipulation that could affect whether the test scores of certain groups of students, including those with limited English skills, were counted in determining federal accountability ratings.

He said he asked Johnson to conduct an independent investigation of transcripts submitted by Patricia Scott, but she refused.

"She said, 'There's no cause,' " Anderson said. "I said, 'I'm giving you cause. I'm on the phone with you. I'm telling you there's cause. Come out here and do an audit.' And she says, 'No, we would have to have a letter.' I said, 'Fine, I'll send you a letter,' and she says, 'Do not send a letter to request it.' So, I'm telling her we'll send a letter and she says, 'No, don't do it. We're not going to do it. Don't send me a letter.' "

Anderson said he continued insisting even when Johnson, during a separate telephone conversation, told him that then-Education Commissioner Robert Scott determined that the TEA would not perform the external audit he was seeking because it was a local matter.

He said agency officials said EPISD needed to conduct an independent audit, which could be performed by the district's internal auditor. Anderson said that in a conference call on June 21, TEA officials Johnson, Glynn and Ryan Franklin approved a rubric the district had laid out for conducting the internal audit. He said García, Jordan and Ortega participated in the phone call.

Franklin declined an interview request. Jordan and Ortega did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Anderson never sent a letter to the TEA. The only written documentation he has of his exchanges with the state agency are notes he took himself or from a message left by his secretary letting him know that Johnson called his office. He referred to those notes frequently during his interview with the Times.

School district and state agency phone records obtained by the El Paso Times through the Texas Public Information Act confirm that the calls Anderson detailed did take place, but what happened in those calls is a point of contention between Anderson and Johnson, the TEA inspector general at the time.

Debbie Ratcliffe, spokeswoman for the TEA, said Johnson does not dispute that she spoke with Anderson, but she has a different version of the discussions. Johnson recalls Anderson calling and asking her to review an audit of transcripts that he was already performing, Ratcliffe said.

"We couldn't help with an audit that was ongoing," Ratcliffe said. "The audit was not complete. It was an unusual request. So she asked him to send us the completed audit and said that if he needed some guidance on how to proceed, he should consider talking to his internal auditor."

"My impression is that she didn't come away with the impression that it was as significant an issue as it's turned into," Ratcliffe said.

Johnson declined an interview request from the El Paso Times to answer questions that would require her to further elaborate on her discussions with Anderson. She cited an ongoing FBI investigation.

"She would really like to discuss our side in greater detail but because of that ongoing investigation, she just doesn't feel that she can talk," Ratcliffe said.

Failure to act

The U.S. Department of Education on June 30, 2010, asked the Texas Education Agency to begin an investigation into possible wrongdoing at Bowie High, based on Shapleigh's May 19 letter to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. That was less than two weeks after Anderson contacted the TEA with his concerns.

Johnson was assigned to conduct the TEA investigation. The El Paso Times has not obtained any evidence that suggests Johnson approached Anderson to ask for the information about grade manipulations that he claims he reported to her weeks earlier.

In fact, in a July 1 letter, Shapleigh asked then-Commissioner Scott to compile information on investigations the agency had conducted on EPISD during the past two years after learning that it rejected a request for a review of testing data from EPISD.

"Per your conversation with me, Analisa Cordova, my chief of staff, and Juana Padilla in my El Paso office, you stated that Superintendent Lorenzo García of EPISD called two weeks ago and asked that your agency review and confirm an audit that he was doing at EPISD regarding TAKS data," Shapleigh wrote to Scott. "You refused to do so and stated to Superintendent García that it was inappropriate for TEA to get involved and that he should get an independent third party to audit the data. To date, the TEA has not done any audit, report or other written review of the Bowie or other TAKS data that is in controversy now."

Documents show that on July 20, 2010, Shapleigh expanded the scope of his cheating accusation beyond Bowie High to include other low-performing campuses known as "priority schools."

Johnson eventually issued two reports -- one in September 2010 and another in October 2010 -- absolving the district of wrongdoing.

"There is no indication that one or more Bowie High School students were prevented the opportunity to attend school and participate in the statewide testing," Johnson wrote in her Oct. 8 findings. "This investigation report does not find areas of non-compliance with (federal) requirements associated with adequate yearly progress at Bowie HS."

García repeatedly used the TEA reports to dismiss allegations of cheating and to accuse Shapleigh of hurting children.

But Johnson never received a copy of the district's internal audit into transcript discrepancies at Bowie, nor does it appear that she ever asked about the findings despite knowing it was focusing on some of the same accusations Shapleigh had made in May 2010.

Records obtained by the El Paso Times show that EPISD internal auditor Joe Yañez began interviews into the cheating allegations in late June 2010 and published a draft of his findings on Aug. 2, 2010. But his 10-page findings report was not finalized until May of the following year. He filed his report on the same date that the Department of Education had established as a deadline for the district to provide documents for a federal audit.

Yañez's audit report said he found grade changes from passing to failing on student transcripts that caused students to be demoted from 10th to ninth grade. He also found unexplained promotions for some students from ninth to 11th grade.

Tenth-grade test results are used to determine federal accountability ratings, and Shapleigh had accused the district of rigging accountability measures by keeping students from taking the 10th-grade test.

One of Yañez's recommendations in the May 2011 report was that the district self-report the audit findings to the TEA.

Documents obtained by the El Paso Times show that the school district did not report those findings to the TEA until May 2012 -- a month after the Times obtained the internal audit and reported that the district had failed to send it to the state agency.

Jordan, who was the district's interim superintendent at the time, sent Johnson a letter in May claiming that the district had been waiting for the culmination of outside investigations by federal agencies before self-reporting the internal audit findings.

The El Paso Times began detailing the cheating scheme in April of this year after obtaining thousands of documents through the state's Public Information Act.

García is now serving a 3å-year federal prison term after pleading guilty in June to two counts of conspiracy to commit mail fraud, including scheming with at least six unnamed co-conspirators to manipulate the federal accountability system.

Anderson said he did not know whether he was considered one of the six people who helped García.

Shapleigh has long alleged that García had a friend at the TEA who helped him cover up the cheating scheme. Shapleigh said he recalls García bragging to his cabinet and community leaders that "TEA had us covered."

"Sure enough, García's friends at TEA covered up in Austin while he 'disappeared' kids here," Shapleigh said. "How did TEA let that happen? Commissioner Williams has a duty to find out and fix it. And (the) U.S. Department of Education now has a duty to make that happen."

Anderson said that while he noticed grade manipulations at Bowie High, he did not suspect a broader cheating scheme.

He claimed that although he was in charge of high schools at EPISD, he did not receive a directive from then-Associate Superintendent Damon Murphy requiring that all foreign students be held in the ninth grade for a year even if they had enough credits to be sophomores. The directive -- which EPISD officials later said violated state law -- was sent to numerous high school principals and other employees.

Anderson said he did not think that the emails he was receiving from then-Pupil Services Director Mark Mendoza about students being denied enrollment at Bowie and other schools were connected to the discrepancies that he saw when reviewing transcripts that showed grade manipulations at the South Side campus. And he said he did not see similar patterns when he reviewed a sample of transcripts of students from El Paso High and Coronado High.

"I had no indication that it was any sort of widespread thing or even on that campus (of) it being a way of not allowing kids into school, and I still don't know to this day if that's the case or not the case," Anderson said.

Shapleigh said the failure of the TEA to catch the cheating is becoming clearer as accounts from Anderson and others surface. Still, Shapleigh said he is leery about the intentions of some administrators coming forward who claim they worked to stop the scheme.

"What is now going on is everyone is covering for themselves when it's clear that dozens have liability for their actions at EPISD," Shapleigh said. "Every man is out for himself."

El Paso Times reporter Hayley Kappes contributed to this story.

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