Canutillo ISD Superintendent Damon Murphy
Canutillo ISD Superintendent Damon Murphy (Vanessa Monsisvais / El Paso Times)

›› Photos: Canutillo ISD board meeting on Superintendent Damon Murphy

The Texas Education Agency is investigating internal audit findings released Thursday by the Canutillo Independent School District that show possible efforts to cheat federal and state accountability measures.

Officials with the agency's Special Investigation Division spoke with Canutillo school board President Armando Rodriguez by phone Friday morning and requested a copy of the audit findings, TEA spokesman Gene Acuña said.

Hayley Kappes

"We're currently reviewing it and will be making a determination as to the next steps and we will notify the Canutillo board," Acuña said. "The goal is to get the determination back to them as quickly as possible."

Rodriguez said TEA officials told him they might have a response in time for the school board's next regular meeting on Dec. 18.

Acuña said the agency had no comment regarding steps the board started Thursday night to fire embattled Superintendent Damon Murphy.

The school board directed its attorney to give Murphy notice of its intent to put the superintendent on unpaid leave and start the process of firing him before his contract expires in June 2014.


Murphy will remain in his job until the school board schedules a meeting to discuss placing him on unpaid leave. Rodriguez said the discussion would not take place during the board's Dec. 18 meeting.

The push for Murphy's ouster came after trustees received a report from the district's internal auditor that found several attempts to lower the numbers of limited English-speaking students and special education students so those subgroups would not count in the district's federal accountability results.

For student subgroups to be considered for federal Adequate Yearly Progress measures, a school must have 50 or more students in a subgroup enrolled on the test date.

Murphy has been embroiled in similar accusations at the center of a cheating scandal in neighboring El Paso Independent School District, where he was an associate superintendent before he was hired to lead Canutillo in January 2010.

Rodriguez on Thursday night declined to say whether the Canutillo district had been cheating on accountability measures.

The audit report alleges that Murphy directed former Canutillo High School Principal Jim Fry to find ways of moving limited English-speaking students and special education students from 10th grade to 11th grade.

Federal accountability measures rate high schools based on 10th-grade performance on state-mandated tests.

Fry did not respond to phone and email messages on Friday that sought an interview. He left the Canutillo district in June to take a job as the executive director of curriculum, instruction and assessment at the 2,700-student Clarkston School District in Clarkston, Wash.

The report states that Fry received emails "related to identifying and minimizing subgroups, monitoring these subgroups and methods on how students could receive accelerated credit during the beginning of their 10th grade and be reclassified as 11th-graders at the end of semester one, thus avoiding the 10th grade adequate yearly progress accountability testing time period occurring in the spring."

That finding seems to contradict comments Fry made in a May 2 school board meeting. He told Canutillo trustees that he had never received orders to skip students to the 11th grade so they would not take the 10th-grade standardized test.

"That's one of those things that you know that you have to be real transparent there," Fry said at the meeting. "Our goal is not to avoid (Adequate Yearly Progress). Our goal is not to avoid accountability for these students. Our goal is that our kids stay with their class, what's called the cohort."

The May meeting focused on a review of the Canutillo district's practices and policies for grade placement of foreign and out-of-state transfer students.

It took place a week after former EPISD interim Superintendent Terri Jordan publicly discussed an email Murphy sent in 2008 when he oversaw efforts to improve performance at struggling schools at the El Paso district.

The cheating scheme focused on the district's low-performing campuses, known as "priority schools."

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

While at the El Paso district, Murphy allegedly ordered principals and counselors to keep transfer high school students from other countries in the ninth grade for an entire year, even if they had credits that qualified them for a different grade level.

At the Canutillo meeting in May, then-board President Laure Searls asked Fry whether Murphy ever directed him to improperly keep students who transferred from another country in ninth grade.

"If there was a Bible here, I'd put my hand on it and I would say absolutely not," Fry said.

He then went on to praise Murphy's leadership at the district.

"I don't feel like I've ever been told to do anything that I'm uncomfortable with," Fry said. "I really respect what (Murphy) has done for me personally and my advancement, and what he's done for Canutillo ISD. I'd work for him again any day."

The Canutillo audit released this week did not include evidence that grade placements of foreign transfer students were done inappropriately.

But the school board is expecting findings from the district's internal auditors about whether foreign transfer students, most commonly from Mexico, have been placed in their proper grade, Rodriguez said.

The school board will provide the state agency with further audit findings once they are available, he said.

Rodriguez met briefly with Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams after his Thursday news conference at the Region 19 Education Service Center, where Williams announced he would remove the EPISD school board and appoint a board of managers after public trust in the board took a nose dive because of the cheating scandal.

The Canutillo district audit findings were not discussed during that meeting, Rodriguez said.

He asked Williams for a response to a Nov. 6 letter the Canutillo trustees sent the commissioner that sought clarification about personnel action he expected them to take against Murphy.

Rodriguez said Williams on Thursday "didn't directly indicate if he would respond."

The trustees wrote that they were "concerned that you expect some action on our part because our current superintendent worked at EPISD and press reports have discussed his employment at EPISD."

Rodriguez said he hopes the state education commissioner supports "actions taken by the district" in initiating the process of firing Murphy.

"It's a tough situation, but at the end of the day, we've made the best decision in the best interest of our kids in our community, and we're doing that to move forward," Rodriguez said.

Hayley Kappes may be reached at; 546-6168. Follow her on Twitter @hayleykappes