3 local school district superintendents resign, relieved of job in 2 years after investigations

EL PASO, Texas - On Thursday night, the Canutillo Independent School District voted to suspend Superintendent Damon Murphy pending his discharge after an internal audit.

Murphy's pending early dismal means he will be the third local school superintendent in two years that will leave early from his contract after an audit or an investigation.

Lorenzo Garcia, El Paso Independent School District

Lorenzo Garcia, the former superintendent of the El Paso Independent School District, pled guilty to federal charges in court June 13.

Garcia pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy to commit mail fraud contained in two separate charging documents. The first charge, count one of a federal grand jury indictment returned in July 2011, alleged that from February 1, 2006, until March 11, 2007, Garcia and others conspired to defraud EPISD by securing a $450,000 sole source contract under false pretenses.

According to court documents, the government has agreed to a recommended sentence in this case of three-and-a-half years in federal prison and restitution in the amount of $180,000 to EPISD. Judge David Briones has scheduled sentencing for September 14, 2012.

"I am devastated that the students and the community have been defrauded this way," Isela Castañon-Williams, El Paso Independent School board president said in a phone interview in June. "We expect that there is always going to be honesty and integrity when students are tested and the results are going to be true and correct. So this is very sad and disappointing for me."

By pleading guilty, Garcia admitted that he had provided $5,000 in "start up" money to a woman with whom he had a personal relationship, for her consulting firm called IRA, according to a U.S. Department of Justice news release.

The second mail fraud conspiracy charge stems from an Information filed by the United States Attorney's Office this morning alleging that Garcia directed staffers to manipulate state and federal mandated annual reporting statistics in order to keep EPISD compliant with requirements of the No Children Left Behind Act.

Garcia's contract with EPISD stipulated that he would receive annual performance bonuses if the District achieved one or more District-wide Board-approved goals on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) Test and/or other state or federal student performance accountability measure(s) including Federal Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) standards for accountability.

By pleading guilty, Garcia admitted that in order to achieve his contractual bonuses, he caused material, fraudulent misrepresentations regarding EPISD's AYP to be submitted to the Texas Education Agency and the U.S. Department of Education in order to make it appear as though the District was meeting and exceeding AYP.

Garcia also admitted manipulating EPISD data for the 2006-'07 school year by implementing a reclassification program designed to evade 10th grade testing and accountability requirements. Garcia directed others to reclassify student grade levels using partial course credits; require that all transfer students from Mexico be placed in 9th grade, no matter whether they had sufficient credits for the 10th grade year; change passing grades to failing grades in an effort to prevent qualified students from taking the 10th grade TAKS test; and, implement course credit recovery programs to help intentionally held-back students catch up prior to graduation, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Garcia was placed on unpaid administrative leave last August, shortly before the start of the school year. He resigned late last year.

Paul Vranish, Tornillo Independent School District

A Borderland superintendent was put on administrative leave on Nov. 19 as the school board plans to hire a forensic auditor to evaluate all purchases and school transactions made under his watch for the last several years.

Tornillo Independent School District Superintendent Paul Vranish was escorted out of the School Board meeting Nov. 19 after the board decided to place him on paid administrative leave.

Vranish said he couldn't stay for an interview because he may "get in trouble for staying on school grounds."

Vranish came under scrutiny months ago after the Texas Education Agency conducted an audit, which was prompted by a whistleblower, that determined Vranish and his wife did not always properly document expenses the district reimbursed them for. Vranish's wife also is a district employee.

The TEA questioned more than $47,000 of Vranish's reimbursements. In Vranish's response to the state, he provided receipts and explanations for some of the discrepancies and in the TEA's final report in September, state auditors wrote there were about $2,500 that were still in question and did not have adequate documentation.

The state recommended the board hire a forensic auditor to evaluate past years of Vranish's spending.

"Once that forensic audit is completed, then maybe we can bring him back, if he's clear. If not, he doesn't get to come back," said new Board President Javier Escalante on Nov. 19. He said this month's school board elections, which brought in three new board members, did not bode well for Vranish. "The community came around. This community wanted this. Just by the voter turnout that came out. They wanted change."

The three new board members voted in favor of putting Vranish on paid administrative leave. Only Rachel Avila, the former president of the board, who's now a regular board member, voted against putting Vranish on leave.

"This is too bad for the kids... I think it's better for him (Vranish) because this town doesn't deserve a good man like him," she said Nov. 19 as she walked out of the meeting.

The room erupted in cheers and people clapped when the Nov. 19 meeting, which lasted less than 15 minutes, was adjourned. Afterward, dozens of residents chanted "si se pudo" or "yes, we did it" and hugged the newly appointed Interim Superintendent Margaret Ruybe who is also the principal of Tornillo High School.

"We have to make sure we keep focus on the students and just go from there. It'll take baby steps but we'll get there," Ruybe said, about restoring order and trust in the district.

Another resident, Rosalee Silva, who was banned from district property by Vranish, said Monday was a turning point for the small community. "We don't need a person like that here. We need positive. We don't need to be in fear or intimidated like I was."

Other residents were also restricted from being on district land because Vranish claimed they were harassing or threatening. The TEA has said the superintendent is not entitled to ban residents from school property.

Escalante said the district is going to start sending letters to every person Vranish banned so they can be welcomed back to the school property.

The board voted to bring back public comment during meetings, which was taken away during Vranish's tenure. Public comment is a time set aside in every meeting that allows residents to speak and address the board on any matter that is not on the agenda.

Tornillo board members also voted to only keep one firm, Baskind & Hosford PC, as legal counsel for the district and terminate agreements with other firms, which included Mounce, Green, Myers, Safi, Paxson & Galatzan -- a firm that has also worked with El Paso ISD.

Vranish submitted his resignation to the district earlier this year with his last day set for June 28, 2013. The validity of the resignation has come into question.

In a video of the Jan. 31 school board meeting where his resignation was on the agenda, Vranish is seen pulling out a letter and passing it only to the Avila, who was the school board president at the time, and secretary for approval. None of the other board members were shown the letter during the meeting and the resignation was never voted on.

Vranish's attorney confirmed in April that his client's resignation is pending approval from the board, but also acknowledged Vranish has already been paid an amount of money based on resignation terms that are a part of Vranish's contract. Vranish's attorney said in April he did not know how much money his client had already been paid by the district.

A Feb. 4 email allegedly written and sent by Avila said due to Vranish's resignation, "he collected $276,000, which cost the district $414,000 due to a state aid penalty."

Vranish has been Tornillo's superintendent since 2002.

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