El Paso School Board Defies State Takeover

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — December 13, 2012 1 min read
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The El Paso school board is taking steps to challenge a state takeover, the El Paso Times reports. The board voted late last night to request a review of Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams’ decision to dissolve the school board and replace it with a new board of managers.

Williams, who has been commissioner since September, framed the state takeover as a signal to others in the state that cheating would not be tolerated. This school board oversaw a disturbing cheating scandal that landed former superintendent Lorenzo Garcia in jail earlier this year.

Here’s the El Paso Times on the board’s latest action:

Board members on Wednesday said they will protect the will of the voters and challenge Texas Commissioner of Education Michael Williams' decision to appoint a board of managers and a conservator to oversee the district of 64,000 students that has been plagued by a cheating scandal. They called his decision "political gamesmanship" and accused him of being swayed by a few of El Paso's elite and the El Paso Times. About 12:15 a.m. Wednesday, the school board unanimously voted to request that the TEA review Williams' appointments of a conservator and a board of managers to run the district for up to two years, pending approval of the U.S. Department of Justice. The board also decided to submit an appeal to the federal Justice Department in response to the state agency's request for preclearance of the board of managers. The federal Voting Rights Act requires the state to receive Justice Department approval for replacing an elected board. The two reviews by the TEA must be done within 30 calendar days after it receives the district's request. The agency must have the request by Sunday.

The El Paso board members are framing this as a move to disenfranchise local voters: “The voters are best suited to decide who should take charge of the district, not the political appointee who is unaccountable to the voters,” said one of the board’s members.

The El Paso Times takes pains to point out that many of the school board’s current members have only a tenuous claim to representing the voters’ will. “Only two of the seven trustees—Alfredo Borrego and Russell Wiggs—were elected by a majority of their constituents in their most recent election,” and the two received fewer than 1,000 votes combined, the paper reports.

An internal audit revealed the cheating scandal had been kept secret until the El Paso Times obtained the documents in April, and the school board also allowed former superintendent Garcia, who was complicit in the cheating, to oversee that audit.

We reported last month on another defiant school board when the Detroit school board voted to withdraw from a state-run authority there. State-run authorities can be a touchy subject: Thomas Pedroni, a professor of curriculum studies at Wayne State University in Detroit, said voters there felt “under siege” from various threats of state takeovers.

The scale of the cheating scandal in El Paso makes this situation a bit unique. But, as many states have attempted to create separate districts or authorities to run low-performing schools, the question of whether state-appointed officials are as responsive to the public as elected board members may come up more frequently.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.