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EPISD Cheating Scheme Update: Former Administrators Plead Guilty

Two former El Paso Independent School District administrators appeared before U.S. District Court Judge David Briones and entered a guilty plea for their part in a scheme to manipulate student data in an effort to rig the federal accountability system.

Vanessa Foreman, 48, and Maria Flores, 61,former Priority Schools Division directors, appeared before Briones today, and both agreed to waive their rights to a trial by jury; they right to remain silent and their right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Foreman and Flores are each charged with one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States. They are scheduled for a sentence hearing on Sept. 28 at 10:30 a.m.

Prior to appearing before Briones, Flores and Foreman consulted with their attorneys. Foreman, who wore thin silver hoop earrings, a black long sleeved sweater and brown pants, came in with her family members who sat in the back of the court room.

Flores, who wore a navy sweater over a grey blouse and navy pants, looked concerned before court was in session. Both consulted with their attorneys beforehand.

At 10:30 a.m., Foreman and Flores appeared before Judge Briones with their attorneys, Rebecca R Reyes and Omar Carmona, respectfully, by their side.

Briones informed Flores and Foreman that before accepting their plea of guilty he had to ask them some questions to insure that they were competent and had not been coerced into admitting their guilty plea to the court. Neither had been indicted.

As the charge and waiver of rights were read, Foreman and Flores simply responded with “Yes” or “Yes, your honor.”

Prosecuting this case for the state was U.S. Attorney Robert Almonte who read the facts of the case aloud. As the facts of the case were read Foreman and Flores stood stoically.

According to the court documents from 2007 to 2008 Flores was at Bowie High School, which did not meet federal accountability standards that year.

The document further states that Flores and Foreman conspired with each other and other employees of EPISD to create “the appearance that an EPISD campus had legitimately met the graduation rate,” and met federal accountability standards in conjunction with the No Child Left Behind act.

Foreman and Flores further conspired with others “to make sure the campus(es) get out of AYP jail,” the documents state.

Flores had approved the use of mini-mesters for students at Bowie High School to obtain course credit. In the Spring of 2011 school Flores directed every applicable EPISD campus, three students who had been applicable to take the modified TAKS test under the SPED, or special education subgroups, to take the regular TAKS test.

This was to avoid federal accountability standards and make it appear as though the district had less than 50 students that were SPED or part of another subgroup.

As previously reported Schools were regularly tested through a standardized test, and from 2007 to 2011, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test, was the standardized test students in the 10th grade were required to take to evaluate their progress in reading, writing, social studies, math and science.

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 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.

Almonte added that Flores kept a list of all LEP students to make sure that LEP students never saw the 10th grade, and thereby avoided taking the TAKS test and skirted federal accountability standards.

After Almonte had finished reading the facts of the case relevant to Flores, Briones asked if Flores understood the charges she was pleading to. Flores, took a deep breath and nodded before she began to cry.

Her attorney, Omar Carmona comforted her by placing his hand on her shoulder. Flores then began to slowly shake her head as she tried to regain composure.

Foreman turned to Flores sympathetically – and then back to her attorney, Rebecca R. Reyes, who reassured her client by patting her back.

“May we have a moment your honor?” Carmona requested for Flores. Briones granted it and Flores used a tissue to wipe her tears away.

The court waited for a moment, and Flores took a deep breath and was able to let out a stifled, “Yes.”

Almonte continued and read the charges against Foreman who was able to keep her composure, and only moved to brush a few stray hairs away from her face.

According to the documents Foreman’s role in the conspiracy was directing a Jefferson High School administrator, on or around Sept. 5, 2010, to conduct an audit that would reclassify students and keep LEP students out of the 10th grade.

Around April 11, 2011 Foreman instructed Jefferson High School personnel to administer mini-mesters to students who attended summer school so they could receive credit prior to graduation.

The allowance of mini-mesters does not meet the state requirements for mastery of the subject matter. Almonte said that Foreman told the Assistant Principals of Jefferson High School that students who had been kept in the 9th grade and who took the mini-mesters prior to October would then be classified as 11th graders – avoiding federal accountability standards.

In addition, Almonte further read that Foreman had in fact conspired with Lorenzo Garcia and Damon Murphy and others to artificially inflate federal accountability scores to make it seem as though EPISD was meeting the state mandated standards.

After Almonte finished reading the facts of the case that related to Foreman, Briones asked if she understood and agreed to the facts as presented.

Foreman nodded and responded with, “Yes.”

The sentence each could receive on their count of conspiracy to defraud the United States is 0 to 5 years in prison; with up to $250 in fines; $100 to the victims; and supervised release of 0 to 3 years.

Briones added that the amount of restitution Flores or Foreman would be ordered to pay would be determined by the probation office.

With the signed waiver of their rights, Briones stated they could in fact receive a harsher sentence and their plea of guilty could not be withdrawn.

In addition, Flores’ plea agreement recommended a sentence of probation to be considered. Briones stated that this agreement was non-binding and he did not have to agree to it.

“If you fully comply and render assistance to the government and testify in court the government then will determine if your assistance is substantial enough to decrease your sentence,” Briones said to both Flores and Foreman.

Neither Flores or Foreman responded to questions from the media as they left the courtroom.

“My client has accepted full responsibility,” Carmona said on behalf of Flores.

Foreman and her family waited for the media to leave the 7th floor of the Federal Courthouse and then looked out the windows to see where media cameras were stationed.

When Foreman, her family and Reyes finally exited, Foreman and a young boy that was with her, covered their faces from the cameras with red and blue parasols.

As the media followed them seeking comment, Reyes simply said, “No comment,” on behalf of her client. Foreman and the boy drew the parasols closer to their faces.

Foreman and Flores are the third and fourth former EPISD administrators who pled guilty this year for their roles in the cheating scandal that rocked the district.

Myrna Gamboa, a former priority schools administrator, pled guilty in January; and former district superintendent Lorenzo Garcia pled guilty guilty on June 4, 2012.

Gamboa was sentenced to 5 years of supervised probations and a $5,000 fine.

Garcia was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in federal prison. His sentence was later reduced to 2 1/2 years for good behavior and completion of the Bureau of Prisons drug and rehabilitation program.

Additional former administrators of EPISD have been arrested this year as well.

On April 20 six former EPISD administrators were indicted and arrested for their part in the scheme. They were: Damon Murphy, 50, Former EPISD Associate Superintendent; John Tanner, 52, former Austin High School Prinicipal; Mark Philip Tegmeyer, 51, former AssistantPrincipal at Austin High School; Diane Thomas, 53, former Austin High School Assistant Principal; and Nancy Love, 48, former Austin High School Assistant Principal.

All pled not guilty.

According to the latest court documents the trial for all five has been set for Aug. 15 in Judge Briones’ courtroom.

Murphy has requested for a change of venue stating that the media attention this case has attracted would not give him a fair trial.

For more information and a fuller history of this ongoing scandal read the El Paso Herald Post Reset: A Look at El Paso ISD Cheating Scheme, Arrests, and Details.

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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