As the trial of former El Paso ISD Administrators continued in U.S. District Court, testimony presented Tuesday indicated that evidence of irregularities and disappearing 10th graders at the El Paso Independent School District began popping up in the Spring of 2009.
Then questions from the FBI put pressure on district administrators, causing then-superintendent Lorenzo Garcia pressure his co-conspirators to sign prepared affidavits stating they and the district had not done anything unlawful.
On Tuesday, former Jefferson High School Assistant Principal Mairbel Guillen and Vanessa Foreman, a former Priority Schools Division Director for the district, testified.
Foreman, who pled guilty in June 2016 to one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States, offered her testimony in the hopes of receiving probation. Foreman’s final sentence will be determined on July 11 by U.S. District Court Judge David Briones.
She was among several co-conspirators in the district scheme to defraud the United States. Others who pled guilty last year include former Associate Superintendent of Priority Schools Damon Murphy, who testified last week; and Assistant Principal Maria Flores.
Former EPISD administrators facing charges for their involvement in the scheme are Nancy Love, Diane Thomas and Mark Philip Tegmeyer, assistant principals at Austin High School; James Anderson, Associate Superintendent and John Tanner, principal at Austin High School.
Through the use of minimesters, falsifying grades, discouraging enrollment and other credit recovery methods, several individuals attempted to skirt state ad federal accountability measures.
Former Jefferson High School Principal Steven Lane had testified on Monday.
According to media reports of his testimony, Lane had testified that he was against the use of minimesters and had called them “a joke.”
Students at Jefferson High School that were limited English Proficient were given methods to receive credits to help them graduate. Students, who were to also enter into the 10th grade that could be a risk to accountability had been discouraged to register.
Lane was fired by Garcia when he refused to be part of the scheme. He was later reinstated, and then fired again a few months later. Lane had been speaking to the FBI -and that was the subject that interested the district.
On Tuesday, Guillen, who had worked under Lane, said she was called into Central Office and asked in a meeting about her conversations with FBI agents and if she knew
anything about Lane’s conversations with them.
Guillen said she was questioned by Ron Ederer, the school district attorney and Anderson. During a second meeting, an affidavit had been prepared for her to sign. It stated that the district had not done anything wrong; and that she had no knowledge of wrong doing.
Guillen said she refused to sign it.
“I didn’t sign it because it was not accurate,” Guillen said.
Like Guillen, Foreman had also been called in to sign a prepared affidavit. Foreman too refused to sign it, but began to feel pressure by Anderson to do so.
“I didn’t sign it because it seemed like it was more for the district than it was for us,” she said.
At one point during her meeting with Ederer he had a tape recorder on, then turned it off and asked her,”What did you do?”
Foreman said she felt uneasy. So, instead of signing the affidavit before her, Foreman left, and opted to make her own statement.
During Foreman’s testimony she said she believed what she was doing was wrong butnot “unlawful” until she was questioned by the FBI. Foreman also stated that she felt intimidated by the FBI.
During cross examination Robert Perez, attorney for Anderson, asked why she felt uneasy about the FBI.
“I felt like they were getting frustrated because they would ask me things that I didn’t know much about, and I felt I should have because of my position.” She added that at times the agents would make frustrated faces.
Foreman then put a stop to the interview with the FBI when questions revolving a grade came up.
As minimesters were implemented, credits rewarded and students withheld from taking the TAKS test, several administrators began to notice that something was awry.
Brenda Booth, director of assessment at EPISD was charged with the ordering and distribution of standardized tests for the district while working at Region 19. Booth was charged with specifically test assessment and administering credit by exam, bilingual testing, gifted and talented testing and training at the Educational Service Center at Region 19.
During the 2009 school year Booth said she noticed that 48 students from Austin High School had been jumped from the 10th to the 11th grade without having taken the TAKS. Overall, Booth said that there were more than 600 students in the district that were classified the same way.
“I shared my concerns with my supervisor and Dr. Damon Murphy,” she said. “I wasvery strongly voicing my opinion to them because of the logistical nightmare this would cause in testing.”
During a meeting with Murphy, Anderson, Associate Superintendent of Research and Evaluation Joseph Lopez, Gina Oaxaca and Adela Montoya, Booth told Murphy that the reclassification of students was unethical.
“He then said he had not been told by Ms. Oaxaca that it was not allowable,”Booth said. “We disagreed strongly.”
Booth said she and her supervisor, Dr. James Steinhauser called the Texas Education Agency regarding the issue of the untested students.
Later, when the El Paso Times reported on allegations from Texas Senator Eliot Shapleigh that indicated the district was “disappearing” students to skirt accountability measures, the TEA contacted Booth and asked that she look into it.
“They had a tax election coming up and they wanted me to look into this,” Booth said citing that the agency wanted good press.
Booth said she told Steinhauser about TEA’s request. Steinhauser then contacted Terri Jordan,former chief of staff. (Jordan was later named interim when Garcia was arrested, but resigned when her involvement in the scheme was revealed.)
Jordan directed that Booth turn the investigation over to Anderson and provide him with TEA’s number.
Anderson then told her he would request that TEA conduct an audit.
Booth added that she had expressed her concerns early in 2008 as well when Damon Murphy had launched a pilot program in an effort to speed up the process of testing students out of Limited English Proficiency classes by testing them mid-year instead of at the end of the year as was commonly practiced.
Students who went through this pilot program took the Stanford Limited English Proficiency test, were assessed on their verbal skills and their written skills based on their previous performance on any TAKS test, and writing sample from their courses. Through this pilot program a large majority passing, thereby re-categorizing them from 10th graders to 11th graders mid-year and avoiding their requirement to take the TAKS test.
“I remember that I voiced my concerns when students were being changed mid-year,” Booth said.
Jefferson and Austin High School
Prior to taking on her role as Director of Priority Schools, with Jefferson and later Austin High School under her purview, Foreman was teaching at the elementary school level. She later moved up and as an assistant principal and later principal in that realm.
Then Damon Murphy asked her to apply for the position of Director of Priority Schools. Foreman was not interested believing that the role would restrict her to Central Office.
Murphy later approached her again and during a meeting told her she would not be stuck at Central Office. Foreman applied and awarded the position of Director of Priority schools with Anderson as her direct supervisor.
During her third year she was given her first high school to get out of Accountability Jail. It was Jefferson High School.
“I was not received well by Dr. Lane, who was the principal at the time because he said I didn’t have any high school experience,” she said. She added that Anderson did not like Lane and would always complain about him.
“There were numerous things that would come up, it was always something,” Foreman said. “I know that Dr. Lane would get verbal and written reprimands.”
Foreman said Anderson’s concern at Jefferson High School was maintaining the LEP population. She added that the concern was over the pilot program that Murphy had implemented.
In an email dated Sept. 23, 2009, Anderson told directors, “To have all the (LEP) students exited and reclassified by the PEIMS snapshot date.”
The PEIMS snapshot provides demographic information from each district’s campus to the TEA. That demographic information includes race, nationality, and subgroups such as Limited English Proficiency students, and students classified as Special needs or SpED.
Foreman added that there was pressure to “upsccore” the students’ grade in the pilot program during their assessments in the pilot program, in an effort to get them out of LEP. When asked if taking students out of LEP, when they weren’t ready, would harm them. Foreman answered affirmatively.
When asked if students who skipped the 10th grade or if students who were held back in the 9th grade were at risk, Foreman said yes.
“Students who repeated the 9th grade are at higher risk to drop out and LEP students are at risk to begin with,” she said.
Minimesters also proved to be a problem. First, Foreman said that grading was very subjective and there was no guide to determine mastery of a subject. An exhibit presented to the jury showed that students who took the minimester course at Jefferson High School received a grade of 70.
During cross examination Perez asked Foreman if she thought it was strange, given that grades were subjective.
“Why would they all be 70s?” Perez asked.
“I have no idea,” Foreman said. “It doesn’t make sense. It just appears like a bunch of 70s.”
Foreman said Dr. Lane was concerned over the use of minimesters to obtain credit, and discussed summer school as the better option.
Shortly after, Lane had been removed from the school.
Foreman said she found out about his removal during a lunch with Priscilla Terrazas, a former director of priority schools, and a friend at Pelican’s Restaurant. When she returned to Central Office Dr. Garcia and Anderson asked her to write a letter about Lane citing how he had been counter productive.
“They denied that he had been walked out of the school by the campus police,” Foreman said. “They said ‘no, that’s not what happened.”
Foreman did write some comments in a memo concerning Lane, but she didn’t the comments would classify Lane as worthy of termination.
Attendance and Credit Issues
Other issues regarding attendance also emerged as Assistant Principals signed off on documents that rewarded credit to students who had been present 75 percent or less during the school year.
This was occurring at other high schools that came under the charge of Foreman. They included Irvin, Andres, Austin and Burges. “This was against the law,” Foreman said. She then recalled talking to Burges High School Principal Randall Woods.
“I told him that the practice of signing off credit was not following education code. But apparently he did not follow the directive based on the Weaver Report showing that numerous credits had been restored.”
When Foreman approached Anderson with the issue, he said, it was the principal’s prerogative and it was policy.
Then at Austin, in 2012, Assistant Principal Diane Thomas sought help in finding missing credits for seniors. “Ms. Thomas needed help to restore credits to seniors that had already graduated.”
Under the direction of Anderson, Foreman conducted an audit from June 2012 to November 2012 with principal Tanner at Austin High School. Foreman said her initial findings, without Tanner, found 110 seniors were missing core credits. With that, she then asked questions and told administrators at Austin High School that they needed to pull records in the event that they made mistakes.
“I also suggested that the AP should pick up diplomas,” Foreman said.
Tanner, who was out of town on a school trip, called Foreman and told her to get out of his school and not request that any diplomas be returned. Foreman left the school and spoke to Anderson, who said to wait for Tanner’s return.
From then on Foreman would receive help from the district’s internal auditing department, who trained her what to look for in student transcripts.
During Tuesday’s testimony, Foreman repeatedly stated that she herself was not an auditor, did not have any auditing experience. Foreman requested documents and ran into issues at times.
“I’m not an auditor,” Foreman said. “I did the best and most I could to the best of my ability given my skills set.”
Paperwork as in disarray, records were missing dates and signatures. She would then leave the campus, and the next time she returned all the documents she needed were there.
“Sometimes it was strange, sometimes there were duplicates of documents,” Foreman said.
This process continued for several months until 108 seniors’ credits were accounted for, but Foreman added that the issue did not get resolved.
“Dr. Tanner and I didn’t agree on what happened as Anderson had instructed us to do so,” Foreman said. “Then I wrote something and was giving it to Anderson but then he was removed. So then I tried giving it to Mr. Jose Baca, but then Mr. Baca left and Tanner was removed because of the Weaver audit. Then reinstated then removed again.” Then, Foreman added, she was terminated.
Foreman testified that she has not seen the audit since she was removed from the campus.
During cross examination by Robert Perez, Anderson’s attorney, he asked whether Lane was at times not on campus. Foreman answered that sometimes that was the case.
Testimony from Cheryl Felder, Director of Student and Parent Services at the district followed.
In her testimony Felder said she and Mark Mendoza, current head of the EPISD truancy department, looked into parent complaints in 2008. The complaints consisted of students being denied enrollment at Bowie High School and having students withdraw if disciplinary issues arose.
Felder said training was conducted at Bowie High School so that counselors and administrators could follow proper procedure. Felder had also helped Foreman with her audit of Austin High School.