In these scorching days of early summer, the elected official enduring the hottest spot of all has got to be Isela Castañon-Williams, president of the El Paso Independent School District’s board of trustees.
The heat on EPISD’s trustees and top administrators soared after Lorenzo Garcia, the district’s disgraced former superintendent, pleaded guilty on June 13 to two counts of conspiracy to commit mail fraud.
Garcia was named in a four-count indictment last July arising from his $450,000 arrangement to purchase curriculum materials and services from a Houston woman with whom he was romantically involved in 2006.
The charges to which he pleaded guilty this month included a second surprise offense that he had conspired with others to defraud the state and federal governments by cheating on the state’s student testing program to raise scores at Bowie High School in the 2006-07 school year.
The El Paso school district’s reputation has been tarnished in recent years by a series of indictments and guilty pleas by administrators, trustees and contactors as part of the FBI’s on-going public corruption investigation.
But it was the charge involving Bowie High that really raised the community’s ire because that scheme was aimed at students who were improperly promoted, demoted, transferred or forced out of school to keep them from taking the 10th grade tests that would determine Bowie’s ranking, and the district’s.
Garcia, whose raises and bonuses depended on those scores, personally organized students in 2010 to rally against then-state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh after he accused Garcia of going after students at Bowie to rig test scores.
As board president and spokeswoman, Castañon-Williams has taken much of the heat lately, especially from an invigorated El Paso Times.
The newspaper has disputed her accounts of events in news stories and called for her resignation along with those of four other trustees in its first front-page editorial in decades last Sunday.
Particularly at issue have been her statements about a long-delayed report by the district’s internal auditor that confirmed the allegations of a school counselor and others that certain students’ responses on states tests were systematically altered.
Castañon-Williams is a career professor at El Paso Community College’s teacher preparation program for students who plan to work in child care centers. She has a master’s degree in education from the University of Washington in Seattle and is a former president of EPCC’s faculty association.
Barely 5-feet tall, Castañon-Williams has fired back at the board’s critics and Times’ editor Robert Moore, while trying to lead EPISD out of the furnace fueled by the actions of school district officials.
She agreed to address recent events in an unusually long and detailed interview with El Paso Inc.
Q: The El Paso Times has become very aggressive in its coverage of EPISD lately, bringing up one issue after another in the district. Your thoughts on the intensity of this coverage by the city’s daily newspaper?
Some of their coverage has been very redundant, and I don’t think that serves the public interest. When they have done new reporting, then I think that it’s in-depth reporting, although sometimes the facts are not all there.
Q: In general, do you have any major problems with the kind of issues they’re raising? They’ve done a lot of reporting on the difficulties they have had in obtaining documents and it seems the district has gone to great lengths to keep documents out of their hands.
That is part of the coverage by the El Paso Times I am saddened by. It is the responsibility of the community newspaper to report the news, not create the news. And when it leans on telling the public that the district is trying to keep documents secret when a great deal of time has been spent explaining to the reporters that the documents in question are either in someone’s personal file and need to go to the attorney general for review to see whether we can release them or are part of an investigation.
In this case, it’s been mostly the U.S. Department of Education that has said they do not want the documents released.
At that point, with an ongoing investigation, the district is in a dilemma. If it does release the documents, it violates an investigation. If it doesn’t, it violates the Texas Public Information Act. So, the only way to resolve that issue is to send the document in question to the Texas attorney general for a ruling. Then, the district is without fault.
Q: Last Sunday, the Times had a front-page editorial calling for your resignation and the resignations of trustees David Dodge, Patricia Hughes, Russell Wiggs and Joel Barrios, which would leave only two trustees. What did you think about it?
I think it was completely inappropriate. I think this is an example of how the El Paso Times is trying to drive a particular agenda that is unnecessary in the community and a perfect example of how they are no longer reporting the news but creating it.
I got a call from KFOX asking me for a response to an interview that the Times’ editor, Mr. Bob Moore, had requested with them. Mr. Moore went down to KFOX and asked to be put on camera to promote his editorial.
I find that behavior questionable and very unethical because when you have the editor of the largest newspaper in town on camera promoting a particular agenda, then you can safely say there is no longer that objectivity that is required in true reporting.
Q: I would point out that he is the editor and is not speaking as an objective observer but as someone voicing an editorial opinion.
That is true. However, how many times do you know an editor to go and solicit interviews from TV stations? When I asked, people are quite surprised. So, let’s get this straight, while he is entitled to his opinion, going to those lengths is questionable.
Q: Do you think voters in EPISD think there should be resignations?
Based on the responses that I’ve gotten and what my colleagues are getting, there is a great deal of support for us. People, I find, are incensed about the ridiculousness of that editorial, because removing five board members would obviously leave the board without a quorum. Secondly, you’re talking about being without representation for several months. So, just from a logistical standpoint, it is an inappropriate proposal.
Q: No other district in Texas has gone through what EPISD has in terms of indictments, convictions and guilty pleas on public corruption charges. Has this board taken any steps to address the kinds of problems that have come up?
One of the steps we took was to take away the power of the superintendent to hire and fire at will, which we felt was a contributing factor to the problems that have emerged, because at one point shortly after Dr. Garcia came, he requested full authority to hire and fire and because the scores were low and the board was trying to work with a new superintendent, so it gave him those powers. As of September 2011, the selections of principal and above receive a final vote by the board.
Q: Other steps?
This year, we have revised the policy concerning sole-source contracts so that the superintendent doesn’t have such a high limit before purchases come before the board. Now, all proposed contracts of $50,000 or more are reviewed by the business services committee of the board and then they are put on the agenda as separate items. That allows for a great deal more public scrutiny and for people to come forward and ask about a particular contract being proposed. There is also a great deal more time for deliberation.
Q: What else?
There was also a change in the policy regarding the placement of students from a foreign country. In the past, the policy was open ended, allowing leeway to principals to place students. That policy has been changed now so that a review of the transcripts needs to be done in the first 20 days of the student coming to the district.
Q: That was because of the problems at Bowie High?
Q: Your thoughts on what happened there? Sen. Shapleigh wasn’t the first to blow the whistle on that but he did take the issue public. How did you react to his allegations?
When I learned of the allegations, I said to him that if he would give me evidence, I would make the motion to fire Garcia.
I believe I had my first meeting with the senator in January 2010 along with Dr. Garcia, the officers with Bowie Alumni and Ms. Lisa Colquitt-Munoz, who represented the district. I was there because I am a Bowie graduate, and I had personal interest in insuring that students from Bowie are treated fairly and have the best educational opportunities as possible.
In that meeting, at that time, the Texas Education Agency had already done one investigation, and the numbers that Dr. Garcia presented at the time matched the numbers that TEA had. So, at that point, it seemed a moot issue.
Q: There was no reason to believe that Shapleigh was right, is that what you’re saying?
That’s right. At that point, I felt this is an issue that has now been resolved and that there was no wrongdoing.
Q: Given what the Department of Education and federal law enforcement have come up with since then, you have to wonder how TEA missed all that.
All of that. I am so incensed about their lack of ability to do an appropriate investigation that I have no words for it.
Q: Didn’t you have Garcia look into the allegations about Bowie and he withheld the auditor’s findings?
He withheld the findings.
Q: Why didn’t the board ask, ‘Where’s that audit?’
We did. Individually, we did. But as he started that investigation, then another investigation started, and by now, the FBI was already interviewing individuals. And, so he used that as his mantra. We had already been told by our school district attorney that once the FBI started working in the school district, we needed to not interfere with an ongoing investigation.
Dr. Garcia told us in June 2010, a couple of weeks after Ms. Scott’s issues emerged – which none of us knew existed – that this lady had come forward and spoken to him and said she had given documents to her supervisor who stashed them in a drawer and that he, Garcia, was now shocked and appalled and was going to do something about it.
The audit report that we finally got a copy of does show that (associate superintendent of high schools) James Anderson, as Mr. Garcia said he would do, did go out there and start an investigation.
Q: What happened then?
He said TEA had been contacted, that the district had self-reported that there was this discrepancy with these 75 students, but no investigation needed to be done. At that point, individual board members in their assessment of Dr. Garcia told him to do an investigation of all potentially affected students, not just the 75 we know about.
Q: EPISD does have an independent, internal auditing department to look into and investigate discrepancies or public complaints or questions from the board?
We do now. The internal auditor is supposed to report to the board. However, during Dr. Garcia’s tenure, somewhere along the way, and I have no idea how because this was before my time, that internal auditor started reporting to the superintendent.
We did not find this out until this issue with the internal audit arose. We had no idea that the auditor was conducting an investigation. Our understanding was that Mr. Anderson, who does show up on the initial audit report, it was he his staff that was investigating students at Bowie.
We also had been assured that the school district had self-reported this incident involving the 75 students.
What we did not know was that over the months while Dr. Garcia was reporting to his superiors that he was still gathering information regarding the investigation, a draft audit report had already been completed. We never knew that because he was insubordinate, that the document was being worked on, that it existed, that it was finalized.
Q: The auditor (Joe Yañez) never came to the board and spoke to you all?
He never came to the board because, as I said before, he was reporting to the superintendent.
Q: So, the auditor’s findings implicated him and yet he was able to cover them up because Mr. Yañez didn’t tell anybody?
No, he didn’t tell anybody.
Q: Has he been dealt with?
He’s being dealt with now.
Q: How did you learn about the finished audit?
When the audit surfaced a little bit before spring break of this year, it was released with a stack of documents to the El Paso Times as a result of a Public Information Act request. I received a call from their reporter, Zahira Torres, to question me about his audit. It was in the middle of the holidays, and I was on the street telling her I’m not close to documents.
She said, “But you would remember a document as significant as this.” And I thought to myself that’s true. However, we receive stacks of documents almost every week, so it’s easy to overlook something.
Q: The document had been released to the Times before you and the board received it?
Yes, it was. It was, and she’s asking me about a document that I don’t know exists.
I had a fit and demanded to know why the board had not received the document, particularly since it had gone to Dr. Garcia and Dr. Jordan. When I met with her, I demanded an explanation. What I was told was that while she had done some of the grammatical editing, Mr. Yañez was responsible for the content. When he took the report to Dr. Garcia, Dr. Garcia had a continuum of revisions and edits.
Q: Garcia was editing the audit of his administration?
Of his administration.
Q: And so was Jordan?
Yes. I asked why is this auditor reporting to the superintendent? What does policy say?
Q: Whom did you ask?
Dr. Jordan. So, the policy was brought out. David Dodge and I had a subsequent meeting, and at that point of time, I gave a very strong directive to Joe Yañez and said, “You no longer report to the superintendent, you report to us.”
Q: What do you make now of the tenure of Dr. Garcia, given what you have seen? Was he trying to do right and just couldn’t seem to do it? Or, was his a corrupt administration from the time he got here and before he got here, when he was already colluding to sell you and the taxpayers a $450,000 curriculum package that was not worth much?
I believe that Dr. Garcia was hired at a time when there was already corruption going on with Mr. Mena and Mr. Cordova, and the relationship with Luther Jones and the previous superintendent, Tafoya. And that Dr. Garcia just figured, well, this is the way things are done, and you get while the getting is good. I think that’s where it began.
Now, as board president having to make all of these adjustments and these discoveries, it’s clear that Dr. Garcia was operating a sophisticated criminal scheme.
Q: Was Garcia the only one aware that what he was doing was illegal, in terms of test scores and shuffling students at Bowie?
Let me answer the question this way: Dr. Garcia pleaded guilty and named six co-conspirators that remain unnamed.
At this point in time, I do not know how many of those folks are still with the district.
Q: What can you say about Terri Jordan? She was quickly promoted by Garcia, in charge of curriculum, handled that audit before you knew about it and was his chief of staff when all this broke.
(Pause) I do not know what is going on with the FBI investigation concerning other individuals who knew or were involved in his criminal activity.
Q: Not all of it is criminal. Some of it’s just bad, right?
There’s so much criminal activity here that bad is not even a consideration.
At this point, I am committed to keeping an open mind about who might be involved and to what extent.
I do not feel it would appropriate for me at this time to support or condemn someone by my comments.
Q: What about hiring a new superintendent?
I put that on the June 26 agenda for our meeting – to start a search. We thought that after Dr. Garcia’s trial this month, we would be in a better position to begin a search.
Now that he has pleaded guilty and we have a much better picture than we did before about what he was engaged in, I believe that now is the time to put the matter of hiring a new superintendent on the agenda and have my colleagues debate on the beginning of a process.
Q: What is your perspective on the need for a housecleaning?
Speaking as one trustee and not for the board, I believe that there will have to be a great deal of housecleaning by the permanent superintendent.
E-mail El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.