Terri Jordan has taken over as interim superintendent of the El Paso Independent School District at a tough time.
Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia is on indefinite leave without pay after a federal grand jury indicted him on four charges of conspiracy, mail fraud and theft a week before school started last month.
Garcia is the first sitting school superintendent in memory to be indicted in El Paso County. He is accused of helping a woman he had a relationship with win a no-bid $450,000 contract with EPISD for dubious services under the noses of school administrators and trustees.
Add to that the fact that the school district was - and still is - grappling with $15 million in state-imposed budget cuts and the loss of millions more in important federal grants.
Jordan, 47, grew up in El Paso and graduated from Hanks High School in the Ysleta school district. She has been on a fast track in administration since leaving the principal's office at Franklin High in 2004.
She began her career in education in 1986 as a math teacher at Austin High and was a popular principal at Franklin for six years when, with her Ph.D. underway, she traded the hallways of a 3,000-student high school for the quiet corridors at Central Office.
"Leaving my students was one of the hardest decisions I ever had to make," she said. "The available position was in technology services.
"I just felt it was an opportunity that I wanted to try, and I wanted to see what other doors it would open for me to serve this district."
One door opened after another. After two years as executive director for technology and information systems, she was promoted to assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for a year. She spent another year in charge of the district's college readiness program and then another year as associate superintendent in charge of high schools.
She stepped up to chief of staff, succeeding Edward L. Gabaldon when he took the superintendent's job at the Clint school district.
That's where she was when Garcia stepped aside last month.
Jordan, who has one child in elementary school and another in middle school, would surely campaign for superintendent of the El Paso district if Garcia doesn't come back and would probably stay on if she didn't get it.
"I don't have any plans to leave El Paso," she said. "Being in a community where I grew up and have worked for 25 years, it's an honor to work with the people I have grown up around, both professionally and professionally."
In an interview with El Paso Inc., Jordan agreed to discuss anything except the ongoing FBI investigation. She responds to questions about contracting safeguards put in place because of the Garcia case, the recent hacking of the district's computer network, and the impact of $4 billion in state education cuts.
Q: Without delving into the specifics of Dr. Lorenzo Garcia's indictment, I'd like to ask about contracting. In the last two years, a number of instances have arisen to indicate that there was not enough internal oversight regarding contracts or enough questions asked by the board. Indictments and guilty pleas have resulted. What changes has the district implemented to prevent conflicts of interest and ensure contract accountability and oversight by the administration and the board?
Our processes have been fine tuned so that our bid process is more stringent. We have implemented processes within our purchasing department to provide oversight of those processes.
In the past, where it had been more of a decentralized process, now all of the bids go to our purchasing department. They oversee the entire process, assist with consistent oversight to each of the departments that are going through a bid, assist in obtaining quotes.
In other words, we've gone to a centralized process, so we have that stringent oversight. Then those recommendations are brought before the board for final approval.
Q: EPISD's website was broken into by hackers recently and evidently the personal information and Social Security numbers of thousands of students and school personnel were compromised. What do you know about that situation now? Was the information copied or was the system just hacked by someone wanting to prove they could do it?
I don't have any idea about that. That is something we are continuing to work with the FBI to make that determination.
Q: It was only discovered because the hackers themselves disclosed it on a hackers' website, is that right?
We did have an organization that kind of monitors different sites to see where hackers have said they have done things. And they called us and gave us the information.
Q: Have your security people explained why they didn't catch it, even after the fact?
Again, that's what we're looking into, where that weakness was, how that occurred and, most importantly, to keep it from happening again. Then, secondarily, seeing what additional measures we can put in place to better secure our network.
Q: Why were student Social Security numbers and personal information accessible through the district's website and intranet at all?
It was our intra-network. We continue to move away from that. Like many organizations, we used Social Security numbers throughout.
I can remember as a teacher when I would sign in on my sign in sheet, my Social Security number was printed on that. That no longer occurs. Those numbers are no longer available.
For students, internally we use a local ID number. Students have ID numbers that we utilize on their student ID cards for students to get their lunches. So we try as much as we can to utilize that local ID number. What we have been using the Social Security number more for is to transfer the data for the Texas Education Agency.
I know there have been some questions about that. We have been in communication with the TEA to see if we can begin a discussion about options that would be available. They do have the state number that's available at a request that they can give out. However, their instructions go on to say that once a student receives a Social Security number and it's received by the district, that we would utilize that number.
So I think the discussion we have to have is about not using the Social Security number, how do we ensure the clean transference of data? Whether it's TEA, universities and colleges, what will be our common student identification that will allow us to transfer data as needed between entities?
Q: Can't Social Security numbers be electronically encrypted?
Yes, and I've already worked with staff on that and asked for a timeline to have that encryption process implemented. I certainly think it is very possible and a process we are going to implement here.
Q: What advice is the district offering to employees, parents and students concerning the data loss and possible identity thefts?
We've set up an entire link on our website and the link is located on our main website, so it's accessible not only by our employees but also by our students and teachers, and by our students and parents. We have a number of FAQs, frequently asked questions. There are questions we have received from our community about what have occurred and what can I do next. We have tried to answer those and post that information.
We've also posted a number of websites that employees, parents and students can access that would also address their questions.
Q: The Texas Legislature cut $4 billion from education this spring. How much is EPISD losing and what are the results of the budget cuts?
Overall I'd say close to $37 million for the biennium. We went though a very extensive budget process last year with the board of trustees and our communities because the amount fluctuated. It went much higher and ultimately, when the legislative session came to an end, we had the final number.
We worked very hard for the reductions to have the least amount of impact in our classrooms. I think that is the thing we are most concerned about is if reductions continue to occur, we will see some results of that in our classrooms. That's what we want to avoid if at all possible.
Not only do we have the reductions on the general budget, but we are also seeing great reductions in the state and the federal grants. For example, our pre-K grants, our early start grants and then some reductions in our entitlement grants.
All of those when, you put them together, start to have a great impact on the district and the services that we're able to provide.
Q: Is there any way to quantify the impact of budget cuts on pre-K and other programs at the state level? Which entitlements were cut?
Title 1, Title 2 and Title 4. Title 1 is the grant money we receive for at-risk students.
Q: Did you lose federal money from matching funds that were cut?
Those are cuts they're making at the federal level.
Q: In the long run, what impact do you think the loss of those funds will have?
At pre-K, not having the programs for our 3-, 4- and 5-year-old programs prior to them coming into school could have a great effect.
So again, what we want to do as we go into our next budget cycle is to look at what opportunities do we have available, and is there funding that we can make available, even if it is a limited amount to address those students' needs.
Q: Have there been teacher layoffs or reductions in force?
We did not have to reduce any teachers this year. In our high schools, we had two at-risk coordinators, and now we have one, so those at-risk coordinators returned to the classroom as teachers.
The middle schools only had one, and the middle school at-risk coordinators also returned to the classroom.
Our counselors are assisting us in taking on those responsibilities, and the support for those children both the counselors and assistant principals.
Q: What impact did those at-risk coordinators have on students? What did they help you do?
They helped us identify at-risk students. What they would do is monitor those students to see what students were coded at-risk, for what risk they were coded and to provide the support systems those students may have needed.
Q: By not having them, what do you lose?
We have to transfer those duties to other staff on campus and we have to be very aware that those students don't fall through the cracks and we're not put in a position where those students don't receive the services.
Q: How much is the school district's overall budget?
About $461 million.
Q: And the biennium loss was $37 million? That doesn't seem like a lot in the scheme of things.
But of the $461 million, 85 percent is payroll costs.
Q: And there are additional cuts coming next year?
There will be additional cuts. Again what we have done is implement the first round. Those cuts we'll have to maintain. This was not a one-year solution. We'll have to determine if additional cuts will have to be made and where they will have to be.
Q: Will they have a real impact on education? Some say money equals education, others say it's not how about much you spend on a per student basis in poorer districts like El Paso. Is this going to affect graduation rates and the performance of schools?
We're going to do everything we can to make sure it doesn't affect the graduation rate. We don't want that to affect the performance of our schools.
What it means is we will have to look at the programs we're offering, see which ones have the greatest impact on our students, find ways to continue to support those and, again, find innovative ways, available grants, other funding opportunities to help us overcome the deficits that we're looking at.
Q: Academically, what are the biggest challenges that the district faces?
Right now, the biggest challenge we're facing is the implementation of the new accountability system, the STAAR, or State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness. We're transitioning from TAKS, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, and going into a testing system that is more rigorous.
Q: At the elementary school level in El Paso, students are almost entirely Hispanic. As you look at that demographic change, are there any particular challenges that this school district will have to deal with in order to keep students moving, not dropping out, going on to college and keeping up with the rest of Texas?
As we go into the accountability system, and looking at our student population overall, we do have some students that are English language learners. The state continues to push the success of those students to come at a quicker and quicker pace that what it originally did.
What we want to do is make sure that the students are receiving support so they can experience success and then not be in a position where they're not successful and become frustrated and not feel like school is a place where they need to be
Q: In the last 10 years, has this district seen a significant improvement in the dropout rate?
Yes, we're working with students early. At-risk coordinators are a big part of identifying those students with needs and being able to identify those needs and work with students early before they get to the point of dropping out.
Q: Will the drop out problem specifically be hit by state budget cuts? You know, parents will ask, "Is my daughter not going to make it because the people who were here to help her last year and the year before are not here now?"
Certainly the challenge is greater on the folks at the campus to work with these students who are at risk. What we can't do, though, is allow funding to dictate how we address students. Funding makes us work harder. Funding affects some of the programs we are able to offer. But it shouldn't take away our dedication that we have for our students in helping them to be successful.
Is there impact? Absolutely, there's impact.
Q: What about the impact of budget cuts on athletics?
In our athletics program, we had started opportunities for middle school students to participate in soccer and cross country track. We did that for a couple of years. But because of the funding cuts it was taken out.
Then at the high school level, we had also implemented 9th grade baseball and softball to go with varsity. Again, with the funding cuts, we are no longer offering that.
Q: What impact are you seeing on the district as a result of the growth of Fort Bliss? How many new students have you seen in the last couple of years?
As far as significant impact, you can see that in some of our new schools: Powell Elementary, Tom Lea Elementary, Richardson Middle. If those numbers continue to increase, that's where we see an impact. We're seeing growth at Huey Elementary and at Ross Middle School because now the construction is in-fill work. So we see the increase in enrollment there. Based on the numbers we are receiving from Fort Bliss, we anticipate we'll continue to see increase in our military population at the schools.
Q: How many students are we talking about?
They put together a chart over what has happened in the last two years and then what they are projecting. The one I have is not the most current. It shows the accumulation from 2007 to 2012-13 of 18,000 school-age children.
Q: The Pentagon has $250 million to upgrade schools on military bases, and El Paso's Logan Elementary School tops the list of schools needing improvements due to overcrowding and condition. What is going to be done about Logan and when?
They have not released the amount yet. We know that we are on the list.
Q: Are there other schools that are seriously overcrowded or that are going to become seriously overcrowded in the district as a result of growth at Fort Bliss? Which ones?
We are reaching capacity at a number of schools: Powell Elementary, Chapin High, Canyon Hills Middle School. Those are the ones I can name off the top of my head.
E-mail El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.