Texas Education Agency Commissioner Michael Williams appointed a new board of managers to oversee the El Paso Independent School District.
Williams made the announcement in El Paso Thursday morning after he had informed Interim Superintendent Vernon Butler and board president Isela Castañon-Williams.
While members of the current board of trustees are not technically being removed, their power is effectively stripped.
In addition to the new board of managers, Williams elevated the district's state-appointed monitor, Dr. Judy Castleberry to the new position of conservator.
Castleberry will also serve on the five-person board of managers. Williams appointed three other members to that board today. Retiring El Paso Water Utilities CEO Ed Archuleta, outgoing State Rep. Dee Margo (R) and City of El Paso CFO Carmen Arrieta-Candelaria are the others. Williams said the other manager will be appointed at a later date, based on recommendations he has asked State Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D) to provide.
"In order to regain the full trust of this community, and in order for this community to be able to move forward, that it is important for us to change the players in this game," Williams said, in regards to the the new board.
Other than Castleberry, who will have day to day responsibilities, the positions will be unpaid.
Williams said he wanted managers who have experience dealing with large organizations, and with crisis management.
"I was looking for individuals who had experience dealing with large entities, and dealing with crisis, and dealing, perhaps at times, with chaos and people who had respect in their community," Williams said. "And so these were some of the names presented to me."
During the announcement, Williams repeatedly commented on the importance of rebuilding EPISD's public image.
"This is an extremely critical time for the district, its students, as well as the community," Williams said. "I am appointing a local board of managers because I believe El Pasoans are in the best position to initiate and sutain long-term, positive change for their school district."
He went out of his way to avoid criticism of trustees while saying he felt the district needed to regain the confidence of the community.
"In my visits to El Paso, I have met and visited with many members of the community who want to make their school district a source of pride again," Williams said. "With the appointment of a local board of managers, I am confident that the work to restore full confidence in the El Paso ISD can be accomplished."
According to Williams, El Paso has been a hot topic since he was appointed to his position back in September.
"I was appointed to the commissioner of Education back in September the first, and since that day there's probably not been an issue that has come to my attention on more occasions than the situation in El Paso ISD," Williams said.
The district's board of trustees remains in place for the time being. The U.S. Department of Justice must approve of the plan in the next 60 to 90 days before it can take effect. If and when that happens, the board of managers would assume the duties currently performed by the elected trustees. The board can then remain in place for up to two years, but a school board election must occur within that time period.
Castleberry's appointment as conservator takes effect immediately. She will oversee the operations of the district until the board of managers is formally installed.
Williams said interim superintendent Vernon Butler retains his position.
Former EPISD superintendent Lorenzo Garcia in October was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in federal prison for his role in steering a no-bid contract worth more than $400,000 to one of his mistresses, and for overseeing a scheme to systematically remove or reclassify hundreds of academically suspect eleventh graders who would otherwise take state accountability exams.
Trustees have come into criticism for allegedly failing to adequately supervise Garcia, and for allegedly failing to follow through with a timely and thorough investigation afterward.
Board President Isela Castanon-Williams said the board has been actively trying to change the culture at EPISD and has done everything asked of them by the Texas Education Agency. She points to the fact that the district restructured their internal auditor department, hired a test monitoring firm and an external auditor as examples of the changes the board has taken on."No one can accuse us of not having complied with any of the recommendations," she said.
Jimmy Vasquez, the leader of a board-appointed taskforce formed to make suggestions that could strengthen the district against corruption, said the board's actions were not enough. "The board while they've started some processes, I think has been somewhat reluctant to really go full steam ahead and do what they had to do and dismiss people that had to be dismissed. There's still some vestiges of the old administration there and if some of the culprits are still there, how do you change things?"
The board has "taken action on five employees that were involved in the wrongdoing," said Castanon-Williams. She added the board plans to make more changes in the next 60 to 90 days, while the Department of Justice approves the change in power. The Board President alluded to pending action the Board was planning to take during a special board meeting, possibly next week. "We are actively taking action on any individual that has knowledge or has been involved in the wrongdoing of the district." The board has been criticized for waiting until the fall to make personnel decisions.
Castanon-Williams said Castleberry has witnessed all the changes the board has made and is aware of the pending changes. She said she is concerned Castleberry didn't convey all of those to TEA commissioner Williams. "That has been problematic for me because I've not had that confidence that he's (Williams) being informed about what all is happening here. I think had he had more information he would have made a different decision."
Williams said no other issue has come to his attention more than the turmoil of EPISD and is sure of his choice.
Castanon-Williams said the new board of managers has a lot of catching up to do. "With all due respect to the folks that have been appointed, they're going to discover this is not a place where you hit the ground running. It's a steep hill."