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TEA reviewing Canutillo ISD audit report

By Krystal Klei, Reporter
Whitney Burbank, WhitneyB@kvia.com
Published On: Jan 14 2014 08:48:59 PM CST
Updated On: Jan 14 2014 08:51:13 PM CST
Damon Murphy, former Canutillo ISD superintendent

KVIA

Damon Murphy

EL PASO, Texas -

A Texas Education Agency spokesperson told ABC-7 they are reviewing the Canutillo ISD internal audit report.

"We've received a copy of their internal audit, and we are reviewing it. As of today there is no investigation. Once that review is complete, we'll see what actions will be taken next, if necessary," said DeEtta Culbertson, a TEA spokesperson.

Canutillo ISD's school board president Armando Rodriguez issued the following statement Friday afternoon: "The District provided a copy of the Dec. 6, 2012 audit report to the Texas Education Agency. At this time, I am not aware of any official investigation by the agency. Obviously, CISD took proper steps to identify the issues addressed in the report on its own initiative. We will continue to proactively address the issue. We hope the commissioner will support the actions taken by the district."

The Canutillo school board sent Williams a letter on Nov. 6 expressing concern that the TEA would expect the board to take action, "because our current superintendent worked at (El Paso Independent School District)." Rodriguez said on Tuesday that the board reached out by phone to the TEA, for a second time, on Nov. 30, but had not heard back from the TEA.

Rodriguez and CISD board vice president Leticia Gonzalez met with Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams on Thursday while Williams was in El Paso to assign a board of managers to EPISD. Rodriguez and Gonzalez attended Williams' EPISD news conference as spectators before the two had a closed-door meeting with Williams and State Rep. Marisa Marquez.

Rodriguez declined to say what he spoke to Williams about in the private meeting or whether it had to do with the letter previously sent or any prior communication with Williams.

A three-page internal audit, released at a special board meeting Thursday, packed a damaging blow to CISD Superintendent Damon Murphy.

Just after 11 p.m. Thursday, Murphy received a notice of intent of the Canutillo school board to suspend him without pay, pending discharge, and notice of intent to ultimately terminate his contract.

As of late Thursday evening, Rodriguez said Murphy's termination would be discussed during an upcoming board meeting, but could not give a specific date. Under state, law Murphy has the right to appeal the board's decision.

Before the suspension and ultimate termination, Murphy is in limbo. For the next 15 days he will be paid, and can prepare to contest the audit's findings.

After a three-hour closed door session, nearly the entire CISD school board voted in favor of the motion, with the exception of Laure Searls, who opted to abstain for what she called a  lack of information.

Board member Sergio Coronado said it was, "The saddest thing I've had to do as a board member."

Through tears, Murphy apologized to the board and embraced them, before leaving CISD headquarters without comment. 

A culmination of interviews, emails, and raw data laid out in the audit revealed that transcripts and classification processes of Canutillo students showed evidence of tampering.

Auditor Hector Rodriguez's conclusion reads: it appears that the superintendent directed two administrators to avoid subpopulations and actions were taken by the administrators to ensure subpopulations were not created. in addition, many mid-year grade reclassifications were made to promote 10th graders to 11th graders, resulting in the avoidance of the 10th grade accountability testing.

Murphy was visibly shaken by the results of the audit, which he said he was hearing for the first time as Rodriguez read his findings aloud to the CISD school board during the Thursday night special meeting.

"I am flabbergasted about it," said Murphy during the meeting. "I would encourage the board to give me some time to look into it, so I really don't have a comment."

The audit revealed Murphy directed the former Canutillo High School principal Jim Fry to avoid creating Limited English Proficiency (LEP) subgroups and Special Education director Janine Hammock to avoid creating Special Education (SPED) subgroups in middle schools.

The results of 10th-grade state-standardized exams are held up to Federal accountability standards. Fifty or more students within a subgroup must be enrolled at the time of testing for that particular subgroup to be counted in federal progress measures.

"I've never been asked to do anything that pushed me to do something that was on the outskirts of questionable," said Fry following a May presentation from the CISD administration regarding transfer credits and student cohorts.

According to Rodriguez, the district did not have an internal auditor in place in May, but he said, when the district hired its current auditor in June, he immediately began investigating the district's student placement process.

According to the audit, approximately 66 students were reclassified out of the 10th grade mid-year, during the 2011-2012 school year. Data analysis revealed around 62 percent of all grade re-classifications for that school year were students who were reclassified out of the 10th grade. Auditors believe it was all done to avoid a tenth grade federal accountability year testing.

"Do we know this hurts students," asked Searls. "During a job interview no one asks if you passed the TAKS or AYP. They want to know if you graduated high school."

In April, EPISD revealed that a federal investigation had uncovered a four-year-old email from Murphy's email account that gave principals and administrators a directive to make incoming foreign high schoolers and high school freshmen be placed in ninth grade even if they deserved to be placed higher than the ninth grade.

"I have no comment about what happened two years ago in a different district. I have no idea what Dr. (Terri) Jordan put forth in that press conference," Murphy told ABC-7 in May at a Canutillo ISD board meeting.

"Ladies and gentleman, that is a stunning and deeply troubling directive from a former top official of this school district," Jordan said in a statement in April, while she was interim superintendent of EPISD. "The email directive from Murphy is especially troubling when considered in light of the district's own internal audit and the ongoing federal investigation into whether students were improperly retained in ninth grade or promoted to the 11th grade to avoid being tested in 10th grade and counted as part of the school's rating Adequate Yearly Progress under the federal No Child Left Behind education law."

EPISD's former superintendent, Lorenzo Garcia, this year, pleaded guilty to steering an expensive, no-bid district contract to his then mistress. He also pleaded guilty to manipulating the district's test scores by not allowing who he perceived as low performing students to enroll or forcing them to skip or be held back a grade. Garcia would get bonuses when the district met state and federal standards that included passing the tests.

Murphy, who has worked in the education field more than 20 years, worked at EPISD for four years as Associate Superintendent for Secondary and Priority Schools during Garcia's tenure at EPISD.

According to Rodriguez, the board has drafted a policy to discuss at later meetings. The policy will work to ensure similar issues do not occur again in the future, and will especially focus on fulfilling the needs of out-of-country students and limited English proficiency students.

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