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Damon Murphy Testifies: Getting out of ‘Accountability Jail’ was Priority

Jurors heard seven witnesses on Tuesday in the case against five former El Paso Independent School District administrators, connected with a cheating scheme that held back hundreds of students in the ninth grade, in an effort to cheat state accountability standards.

Among those brought to testify was former Associate Superintendent of Priority Schools, Damon Murphy who said he was responsible for insuring that sanctioned schools, or schools that did not meet state or federal accountability standards, “got out of accountability jail.”

Murphy pled guilty in January to one count of conspiracy to defraud the federal government. His testimony on Tuesday came later in the afternoon.

The former EPISD administrators facing several charges in connection with the scheme are Nancy Love, Dianne Thomas, Mark Philip Tegmeyer, James Anderson, and John Tanner.

Anderson, former EPISD Associate Superintendent is facing one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States, attempt and conspiracy to commit mail fraud, and providing false statements to investigators.

Tanner, former principal at Austin High School and Tegmeyer, a former assistant principal at the same high school, are charged  with conspiracy to defraud the United States, attempt and conspiracy to commit mail fraud, frauds and swindles, and retaliating against a witness or victim.

U.S. District Judge David Briones is presiding over the case.

During Murphy’s testimony, which came late in the afternoon, Murphy detailed how he came to know former EPISD Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia and how he gained the position of associate superintendent of priority schools at EPISD from 2006 to 2008. Garcia was arrested by the FBI and charged in August 2011 for steering a $450,000 no- bid contract to his mistress and inflating student grade scores in an effort to cheat federal accountability measures.

In November 2011, Garcia resigned as superintendent from the district.

Garcia was initially sentenced to 3 ½ years in a federal prison after he plead guilty to two counts of fraud. But his sentence was shorted to 2 ½ years after he participated in a drug counseling program.

Murphy said he conspired with Garcia and other co-conspirators in the case. Part of Murphy’s plea agreement included assisting the U.S. government with the case.

“There wasn’t a week that went by that if TEA would have been there, they would of freaked out,” Murphy said.

U.S. District Attorney Debra Kanof questioned Murphy about his involvement in the cheating scheme. Murphy stated that he knew Garcia from his days when he taught in Houston, Texas in the Spring Branch ISD. At the time Murphy applied for the position of a middle school principal but did not get it. Lorenzo had been part of the hiring committee, and had later reached out to Murphy and asked him to reapply once a position opens.

“Garcia took a liking to me,” Murphy said. “I didn’t get the job then, but Garcia said I’d have a good chance of getting in.”

As Murphy progressed in his career as an educator and an administrator in the Spring Branch district, Garcia left and moved to Dallas where he became an associate superintendent at the Dallas ISD. Murphy had stayed in touch with Garcia, who often gave him leads into new positions that became available. Murphy told the jury that he was interested because his family lived in Dallas.

Murphy would apply and reapply for available positions, without results. Then in 2006, Garcia became the Superintendent of EPISD, and reached out to Murphy.

“He said he had three associate superintendent openings, and he basically said, I can hook you up with one.”

Kanof then asked what happened next and whether Murphy was qualified for the position.

“I was thrilled, and no I was not qualified,” Murphy said.

Murphy added that he had watched Garcia’s career and wanted to follow his led. He was a man with ambition.

“It was limitless,” Murphy said referring to Garcia’s ambition. “He said he wanted to become the Commissioner of Education in Texas.”

Accountability Jail

As associate superintendent of priority schools Murphy said he was given orders to get the failing schools out of accountability jail and stop the sanctions that were coming year after year. His position, Murphy said, had been created to fulfill this.

Murphy recalled that there were about 22 schools, a mix of elementary, middle school and several high schools, that were sanctioned at the time he arrived at EPISD.

Kanof asked if Murphy had been instructed on how to get the schools to meet the standards.

“We implemented a myriad of programs to the schools to get them out,” Murphy said. “Garcia took $1 million and asked me to hire a staff of directors and coordinators for this new division to assist in the improvement of these priority schools.”

Murphy was charged with hiring Priority School Directors, a new positions, that in theory were equal to that of principals at the high school.

“But in practice the director had the final say.” Murphy said. Murphy hired several directors including Maria Flores and Vanessa Foreman.

Foreman and Flores both plead guilty in June 2016 to one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States.

Kanof asked if a principal’s career would be at risk if they did not adhere to the directions of the Priority School Directors. Murphy answered that it could.

“Were any principals fired?” Kanof asked.

Murphy answered yes.

In an effort to get out of “accountability jail,” Murphy said he was directed to draw up a letter that indicated that any student that took the 10th Grade TAKS test did not have to take it again once they took it, regardless on whether they had passed it. The letter was written by Murphy and Robert Ortega, the associate superintendent for secondary schools.

If they failed it, they didn’t have to take it again, and could be moved to the 11th grade.

Another method to skirt accountability measures was giving students an additional 1/2 credit during so that they could be classified as 11th graders based on credits alone.

“We did this ad-nauseam,” Murphy said referring to providing additional credits. “And we decreased the 10th grade numbers across the entire division. So, we had a more focused group of 10th graders to take the test.”

Murphy went onto explain how students who failed the test or their classes could lead to ramifications for the district.

“There were students who were 2nd year sophomores, so they failed a bunch of classes their sophomore year, and the following Fall, they came back as sophomores,” Murphy said. “So, this is a problem because they are low performers and that would hit us when they take the test again.”

Later, Murphy sought Myrna Gamboa, who later became the campus director of Bowie High School.

Murphy said he spoke with Gamboa about getting Bowie High School out of “accountability jail.”

“I told her that the LEP numbers (Limited English Proficient students) were high and that we needed to decrease the LEP population and decrease the special education population and move these numbers to have a better shot of the 10th grade being successful.”

If Gamboa did not meet these requirements, Murphy told her, “All of our jobs are in peril.”

As a result, Gamboa changed the grades of failing students at Bowie High School, but Murphy added that he didn’t tell her to do that.

Murphy clarified that not all directors or principals who did not meet standards lost their jobs. “It was ultimately at the whims of Dr. Garcia.”

Kanof then presented an email written by Murphy to his campus directors, to the jury.

The email detailed information regarding a summation of Garcia’s meeting with Sylvia Atkinson, former superintendent of Socorro ISD, who told him that SISD was stopping Mexican National students from receiving transfer credits.

The memo Murphy wrote, stated that Garcia wanted EPISD to do the same thing.

Actions that are contrary to state law, which requires students to receive their transferred credits.

Kanof asked whether this could have affected military families. “It certainly might have, but that wasn’t our thinking. But specific cases could bereviewed and promptly awarded credit,” Murphy said.

“So it meant Mexico?” Kanof asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” Murphy said.

Standards

Pressure from the state and federal government prompted such measures, Murphy said in his testimony. However, complying to the federal accountability measures in order to receive Title I funds is voluntary.

The standardized test, given to students in the 10th grade were required to take to evaluate their progress in reading, writing, social studies, math and science. The selection of the grade level is left up to the state.

In measuring success, the Department of Education also takes into account students that are labeled as “subgroups” or students that were “special needs, Limited English Proficient, Special Education, economically disadvantaged; Hispanic, Caucasian and African-American.

If 50 or more students at each campus were classified in these subgroups, the district is required to report them for accountability purposes. However, if a subgroup at a campus fell below 50 students, then that subgroup is not taken into account and the campus has a greater chance of meeting federal accountability standards through the standardized  test.

On Tuesday, Carlos Martinez, of the U.S. Department of Education, provided a detail account of how the federal government, relies on state assessment data to be reliable and true.

Martinez’s leads the Standards Assessments and Accountability Group. Throughout his time at the U.S Department of Education he has analyzed data pertaining to the Limited English Proficient populations, or English Language Learners.

During his testimony Martinez said that the standardized test, or rather the reason for No Child Left Behind, was to ensure equity in all schools.

Schools that were seen to be at risk of failing, due to economic hardship could “level the playing field” with the use of Title I funds from the federal government.

In addition, he added that being part of these measures to improve ones school under the No Child Left Behind Act, was voluntary. States did not have to participate. If states choose to receive these funds meant to improve their schools, all students must take the test to measure success.

“Every student has to take the test, but certain accommodations can be made for LEP students and SPED and students with disabilities,” Martinez said.

In addition, while the federal government could advise the states they could not decide how to assess each state’s students. Again, Martinez added it was up to the state’s legislature and that under no circumstance did the federal government step in to tell the states how to run their schools.

From 2006 to 2013 the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test was selected as the state standardized test in Texas.

If a school or district failed to meet the standard, there were various stages of corrective measures that could be taken. If a school reaches stage 5 then the leadership in the school can change and the school can reopen up as a charter school, Martinez said.

Martinez was not made aware of any irregularities occurring at the El Paso Independent School District until then, State Senator Eliot Shapleigh wrote a letter to the U.S. Department of Education alleging that the district’s was disappearing students at Bowie High School.

Martinez did not provide the details of the letter, as objections were raised by James Anderson’s Attorney, Robert J. Perez.

However, Martinez was allowed to continue to describe what he did next, following the Shapleigh’s letter.

“I then went to analyze the data, as Shapleigh alleged, to compare the data,” Martinez said. “And I wasn’t provided with a comparison, so I compared the numbers of LEP students from Bowie High School, to the number of LEP students at Riverside High School.”

Riverside High School is in the Ysleta district. Martinez explained that he decided to compare the two because he was looking for a school that was comparable to that of Bowie High School. Riverside, Martinez said, had roughly the same number of students, with roughly the same demographics and was close to the border.

His findings in the comparison coaborated Eliot’s allegations.

During cross examination Perez asked whether not following the standards set forth by the federal or state governments was punishable by criminal penalty.

“Nowhere in the act is there a criminal penalty?” Perez asked.

Martinez responded in the affirmative. “Not within the act, is there a criminal penalty.”

The Weaver Audit

Bill Brown, formerly of Weaver and Tidwell, the audit firm out of Austin who conducted an investigation on EPISD, testified that data pulled from the district showed significant increases in 11th graders, and significant decreases in the number special education students at Austin High School.

The investigation by Weaver and Tidwell was conducted in 2012 after the Texas Education Agency ordered the district to conduct an investigation after they became aware of allegations of a possible scheme at EPISD. The Weaver Audit was released in April 2013.

Brown said during his investigation he also found that attendance records had been manually overridden, thereby indicating that a student, who may have had a number of absences, was now present.

Brown recalled seeing that more than 700 forms had been filled out and signed by James Tanner.

In one example, the state showed a form that indicated a student, who had been approved to pass onto the next grade level, had grades as low as 45 and 13, and had failed all their courses. But Tanner’s signature, shown in the document, allowed for the student to move forward.

On the defensive Tanner’s lawyer, Elizabeth Rogers, asked whether the auditors had reviewed whether Tanner’s signature had been forged.

Brown said they had not considered that.

Interviews were also part of the audit. Tanner’s defense Attorney Elizabeth Rogers asked Brown if the individuals questioned were told that it was voluntary and that they could leave at any time. These interviews were conducted in a conference room of the EPISD headquarters.

“We did not advise anyone of their right not to talk to us,” Rogers said. “They were there voluntarily and could leave at any time during the interviews.”

During Cross examination, Perez questioned Brown on whether his analysis of the numbers at Austin High school were based on fact or guessing. He further asked if Brown knew that the numbers had improved while Anderson was at Austin High School.

Brown had answered that he did not but had attributed the improvements to a Craig Kirwall, who had intervened at Bowie High School.

“Did you know Anderson hired him?” Perez asked.

“No, I did not,” Brown said.

Further testimony came from a parent of Austin High School, Laura Alvardo, who said that her child Aaron Lopez had done well his freshman year, but felt he was not wanted at Austin High School during his sophomore year.

“The teachers said it was because he wasn’t going to class or doing his homework,” Alvarado said. “But I saw him do it in the kitchen every day.”

She said she met with Diane Thomas, who had told her it was best that her son drop out. Thomas had been an assistant principal at that time.Time and time again, Alvarado said she reached out to Tanner, who at the time was a principal at Austin, but he dodged her or was always busy. Finally, during a football game she caught him and asked what could be done about her son.

“He said, he was an accountable student and encouraged that he drop out.” Now, 27, Alvardo said her son was able to graduate from Sunset High School with his GED and completed his medical assistant certification.

However, that was not the case with all students that were affected by this scheme.

The trial continues today and is expected to last several weeks.

Previous Coverage  HERE

About Alexandra Hinojosa

“Once journalism is in your system, it’s hard to get it out… and then you realize, it’s there to stay.” – Alex Hinojosa is a full time instructor at El Paso Community College and a former El Paso Times journalist. FULL BIO

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