Lorenzo García, a former superintendent of the 64,000-student El Paso, Texas, school system, was sentenced this month to 3½ years in prison and hefty fines after pleading guilty to two counts of fraud, including an elaborate conspiracy to manipulate student enrollment to boost his district’s performance on state tests.
Mr. García, who served as superintendent from 2006 until August of last year, also admitted to a fraud that involved the assignment of a $450,000 consulting contract to a woman with whom he had a personal relationship. The 56-year-old Mr. García was sentenced to 42 months for each crime and will serve the sentences simultaneously.
He was also fined $56,600, the amount of the personal bonus he received when the district appeared to be performing better because of the manipulations, and ordered to pay $180,000 in restitution for the contract fraud.
While scandals involving cheating on state tests have made news recently in Atlanta, Philadelphia, and other districts, the El Paso case is “the first completed case we have involving a school superintendent manipulating data related to adequate yearly progress for financial gain,” said Catherine Grant, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education’s office of inspector general, which investigates allegations of fraud, waste, and abuse of federal education funds, including this case.
Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, districts and schools must show that they are making adequate yearly progress, or AYP, in raising students’ performance or risk penalties.
David Hinojosa, the Southwest regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF, a Los Angeles-based civil rights organization, said the case also stands out as an “intentional, blatant action taken by a district at the highest level” to ensure that it “would not have to be responsible for educating all of its students.”
The sentences against Mr. García were handed down Oct. 5 in the U.S. District Court in El Paso.
The cheating scheme in El Paso involved reclassifying students in struggling schools so they would not take the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS, on which administrator bonuses and schools’ AYP status were based.
For example, all high-school-level transfer students from Mexico were placed in 9th grade, regardless of their credit status. Some students’ grade levels were reclassified based on partial course credits; others were counseled to drop out.
The district was investigated and cleared twice by the Texas Education Agency before persistent pushing from then-state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, a Democrat from El Paso, and community advocates led to a federal investigation. Mr. García was arrested in August 2011, and after the El Paso Times published correspondence between federal investigators and the district last spring, the district admitted wrongdoing.
The FBI is still investigating six other district employees suspected of involvement in the fraud, and it has said more arrests are likely.
David Dodge, a member of the district’s school board, told the El Paso Times last week that the district would soon begin its own investigation; it had not initiated one before because of the ongoing FBI probe.
The state education agency has assigned a monitor to the El Paso district and is continuing to work with it, said agency spokesman Gene Acuna. State Commissioner of Education Michael Williams was quoted in the El Paso Times on Oct. 9 as saying the district could face sanctions if it does not discipline any other employees involved in the scheme.
Tying teacher and administrator pay to student performance is increasingly common in districts nationwide, and is encouraged by such federal grant programs as the Teacher Incentive Fund and Race to the Top. But some observers say such policies may raise the risk of fraud.
In the 50,000-student Atlanta school system, for example, former Superintendent Beverly Hall received significant financial rewards and accolades for student scores based on a variety of practices, including cheating by teachers and principals, and, on a smaller scale, misrepresentation of students’ grade levels. State-level investigations are ongoing in that scandal, which came to light in July 2011. Ms. Hall has not been charged with any crime. (“Cheating Scandals Intensify Focus on Test Pressures,” Aug. 4, 2011.)
“There’s clearly an incentive for people from the bottom of the system to the top to manipulate numbers,” said Robert E. Wilson, a Georgia lawyer who helped lead an initial investigation of the Atlanta scandal.
Kathy Christie, a vice president of the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based organization that tracks state education legislation, said the potential for fraud has been on policymakers’ radar and is likely to be increasingly so.
“Certainly the pressure from the new teacher- and administrator-evaluation processes will create significant pressures that could escalate the issue,” Ms. Christie said.
In El Paso, Mr. Shapleigh, the former state senator, had called for a harsher sentence for the former superintendent.
But Mr. García’s conviction was seen as an example of justice served by FBI investigators and community members.
“The former state senator and staff, as well as the community who stepped forward, including teachers and parents in those communities, should be applauded for not going away,” said MALDEF’s Mr. Hinojosa.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared in the October 17, 2012 edition of Education Week as Cheating Scandal Lands Ex-Superintendent in Prison