Dept. of Justice delays ruling on okaying TEA appointments to oversee EPISD board

El Paso Independent School District Board of Trustees were informed Feb. 8 that the U.S. Department of Justice has notified Texas Education Agency (TEA) that it would be inappropriate for the Attorney General to make a ruling at this time on the TEA's request for pre-clearance under the Voting Rights Act to make a temporary replacement of the elected Board of Trustees with a TEA Commissioner-appointed five-member Board of Managers, because the matter is not final.

The Record Review Hearing of the proposed appointment of the Board of Managers, and the Review of the appointment of the conservator, was held in Austin on Feb. 7. A decision from the hearing officer, Holland Timmins, is not expected until sometime after Feb. 26, according to EPISD officials.

"We are pleased that the U.S. Department of Justice has agreed with our position that the Texas Education Agency's request for preclearance under the Voting Rights Act was premature," Board President Isela Castañon-Williams said in a statement. "We look forward to the decision that we will be receiving at the state level from Mr. Timmins."

EPISD officials said that "if and when TEA re-submits a request for preclearance to the U.S. Department of Justice, it will use the same file number as the initial submission. This would start another 60-day review period. Any comments previously submitted under that file number will still be on file."

The Department of Justice letter to EPISD does not state that another 60-day review period would start if and when TEA re-submits a request for preclearance.

Texas Education Agency Commissioner Michael Williams appointed a new board of managers to oversee the El Paso Independent School District on Dec. 6.

While members of the current board of trustees are not technically being removed, their power is effectively stripped.

In addition to the new board of managers, Williams elevated the district's state-appointed monitor, Dr. Judy Castleberry to the new position of conservator.

Castleberry will also serve on the five-person board of managers.  Williams appointed three other members to that board on Dec. 6.  Retiring El Paso Water Utilities CEO Ed Archuleta, outgoing Dee Margo, City of El Paso CFO Carmen Arrieta-Candelaria, and Dr. Blanca Enriquez are the others. 

"In order to regain the full trust of this community, and in order for this community to be able to move forward, that it is important for us to change the players in this game," Williams said on Dec. 6, in regards to the the new board.

Other than Castleberry, who will have day to day responsibilities, the positions will be unpaid.

Williams said he wanted managers who have experience dealing with large organizations, and with crisis management.  

"I was looking for individuals who had experience dealing with large entities, and dealing with crisis, and dealing, perhaps at times, with chaos and people who had respect in their community," Williams said. "And so these were some of the names presented to me."

During the Dec. 6 announcement, Williams repeatedly commented on the importance of rebuilding EPISD's public image.

"This is an extremely critical time for the district, its students, as well as the community," Williams said.  "I am appointing a local board of managers because I believe El Pasoans are in the best position to initiate and sutain long-term, positive change for their school district."

He went out of his way to avoid criticism of trustees while saying he felt the district needed to regain the confidence of the community.

"In my visits to El Paso, I have met and visited with many members of the community who want to make their school district a source of pride again," Williams said. "With the appointment of a local board of managers, I am confident that the work to restore full confidence in the El Paso ISD can be accomplished."

According to Williams, El Paso has been a hot topic since he was appointed to his position back in September.

"I was appointed to the commissioner of Education back in September the first, and since that day there's probably not been an issue that has come to my attention on more occasions than the situation in El Paso ISD," Williams said. 

The U.S. Department of Justice must approve of the plan in 60 to 90 days before it can take effect.  If and when that happens, the board of managers would assume the duties currently performed by the elected trustees. The board can then remain in place for up to two years, but a school board election must occur within that time period.

Former EPISD superintendent Lorenzo Garcia in October was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in federal prison for his role in steering a no-bid contract worth more than $400,000 to one of his mistresses, and for overseeing a scheme to systematically remove or reclassify hundreds of academically suspect eleventh graders who would otherwise take state accountability exams. 

Trustees have been criticized for allegedly failing to adequately supervise Garcia, and for allegedly failing to follow through with a timely and thorough investigation afterward.  

Castanon-Williams said in December that the board has been actively trying to change the culture at EPISD and has done everything asked of them by the Texas Education Agency. She points to the fact that the district restructured their internal auditor department, hired a test monitoring firm and an external auditor as examples of the changes the board has taken on."No one can accuse us of not having complied with any of the recommendations," she said.

Jimmy Vasquez, the leader of a board-appointed task force formed to make suggestions that could strengthen the district against corruption, said the board's actions were not enough.

"The board while they've started some processes, I think has been somewhat reluctant to really go full steam ahead and do what they had to do and dismiss people that had to be dismissed. There's still some vestiges of the old administration there and if some of the culprits are still there, how do you change things?" Vasquez said in December.

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