Community Scholars Program: Does it Pass the Smell Test – Part I of II

By Gerald Mangrum, El Paso Tribune

What’s the big deal? The school district is providing funding so some very talented students can gain some experience in the real world and hone their sense of ethics by rubbing elbows with prominent citizens of El Paso. What’s wrong with that? In this article there will be more questions than answers. It has to be that way because a number of citizens have asked questions with no clear answers from their government and school district. I have asked a number of questions to only be dismissed by my school district representative who happens to be the EPISD President of the Board of Trustees, Dan Wever.

The story begins some time ago when, according to Dan Wever, Mayor Caballero’s wife, Mary Hull Caballero, and State Senator Eliot Shapliegh founded the Community Scholars program. Dan Wever posted on the El Paso Forum on May 15th at 7:04 P.M., “EPISD has been a financial supporter for about 6 years along with El Paso Electric Company, AT&T, and Petro Shopping Centers.” Also, according to Mr. Wever in an El Paso Forum posting on April 18th at 8:04 P.M., the Community Scholars is a non-profit program that receives in-kind support from EPCC and UTEP for “computer labs, presentation rooms, classrooms and basically anything else the students need to do their work.” Mr. Wever says that the cost per student is approximately $6100. The benefit, according to Mr. Wever, is that the students return to school and share what they learned with their peers and teachers.” He also says “many teachers incorporate materials from the Community Scholars in their courses.”

This sounds like a great program! That is why we wondered why Mr. Wever was so defensive when asked specific questions about this program. Questions such as; What is this money used for? Attorney Theresa Caballero happened to be at an EPISD Board of Trustee meeting to represent a client on an unrelated issue when she heard a Community Scholar presentation to the board by a community scholar who was there with Mary Hull Caballero. Ms. Caballero listened to the presentation and had some additional questions regarding this program. She approached the board to ask for permission to speak to that agenda item. When Ms. Caballero brought up the fact that the community scholars had sued banks doing business in town, Mr. Wever shut the meeting down and stifled any further comment. That action raised red flags!

Mr. Wever was again questioned about this on April 20, 2003 during a candidate forum sponsored by the Westside-Upper Valley Voters Coalition. He pleaded ignorance and said that he only approved the program because Senator Shapleigh recommended it. Again red flags!

Mr. Wever sent me an e-mail dated May 14, 2003 at 10:49 P.M. where he says, “By the way your questions last time made me think and we were getting ready to fund the Community Scholars again.  I stopped it and made the district go out for bids with an RFP.  It ran in the newspaper for the legal time and was posted as an agenda item.  When the bids came back in no one was there to talk about the Community Scholar bid and no one made any comments.  It passed 6-0 with no objection from anyone.”

I checked with the EPISD Board of Trustee Vice President and Finance Committee Chairman, Gene Finke, by sending him an e-mail dated May 14, 2003 at 11:14 P.M. and said, “I just received an e-mail from Dan saying that the EPISD board very recently renewed the Community Scholars funding with a vote of 6 to 0. Is this true?”

I also e-mailed Mr. Wever and asked the following questions:

  • Is there a report available on the rules, goals, objectives, time lines, list of personnel, and budget of this group?
  • Since this is an educational program, are there lesson plans and educational objectives?
  • Is there a certified teacher teaching these students?
  • If so, what are they certified and endorsed to teach? How much money was approved this time, and upon whose recommendation?
  • Was there any money left over from the $75,000 the board approved with Senator Shapleigh’s recommendation?
  • How many students are participating from EPISD?
  • What are the requirements to be selected as a Community Scholar?
  • How are the students transported to the location this program is administered?
  • Do the student go to court to observe the judicial aspect of their research? How much are the students being paid?
  • Are taxes being deducted? Is the Mayor’s wife still the head of the project?
  • If so, is she a volunteer or is she being paid and how much?
  • Does she have a contract or is she a permanent employee with benefits?
  • If she is a permanent employee, what scale has she entered at?
  • Does she have teaching credentials?
  • If she is is working for the school district either as a volunteer or as an employee, I assume she satisfied the requirement of a background check and fingerprinting, right?
  • How many others are in contact with the students that have to satisfy that same requirement?
  • Where are their offices set up?
  • Who signs a lease agreement if there is any, and with whom?

I respectfully request to have answers to these questions within 7 days or provide me with a point of contact at EPISD that will answer these questions in writing.

In reply Mr. Wever offered this e-mail on May 15, 2003 6:31 A.M., “Mr. Mangrum, Do you mind if I post your request on Paul’s website? It might help get some of the hours worth of research your questions would require. Thanks”

I declined his offer and e-mailed him the following, “I requested the information from either you or an official from EPISD…not anonymous posters from an unreliable website. This is an official request for information about how you have authorized the expenditure of tax dollars. The information provided to answer these questions should be official not unofficial. This information should be readily available. If I were on the board and asked to approve taxpayer funds for such a program, I would have asked for this type of information in the backup. That only seems reasonable. If some research is required to find out about this, then apparently it is necessary. I would also like to know if the students receive credit for this program. What type and how many credits? I consider this topic of great importance to the constituents of your district. As an advisory to you, I will share this information to the concerned voters that will attend the candidate forum this Saturday.”

Mr. Wever answered on May 15, 2003 at 7:19 P.M. and said, “E-mails are not official requests. You will have to fill out an open records request if you need any information from the district.  There is no law that says I have to tell anyone my reasoning on any subject.  Sorry! I would suspect you don’t want it posted because you don’t want anyone to know how ridiculous your questions are. I will post them as from a district property owner.”

Mr. Finke responded to the 6-0 vote approving the Community Scholars via e-mail dated May 16th at 4:37 P.M. and said, “I had to do some research. The item was not listed on the agenda as “Community Scholars.” It was on the agenda on May 6 as Student Summer Leadership Development Program RFP-03. The vote was 6-0. Telles was not there. Noting that it was a response to an RFP that had been bid out competitively, I considered it a training opportunity for students. If I had connected the dots I would have realized you were skeptical and seen to it that you got an invitation to the meeting so you could have addressed the issue.”

I forwarded Mr. Finke’s reply to Mr. Wever. In response he sent me an e-mail dated May 16, 2003 at 5:57 P.M. and said, “It was not listed as Community Scholars because it went out for bid as a summer training program.  I thought you would like this since you were so concerned about it.  The Community Scholars were the only people that bid on it.  I know we put it in the paper in too small a print for you to see and we did it on purpose just to slip it by you.  Get real.”

Red Flags! Red Flags! Red Flags!

What does this verbal sparring mean? Why does Mr. Wever resist answering questions about spending tax dollars to a constituent, voter, and even a member of the EPISD Budget Review Committee? Remember, I said at the beginning of this article that there would be more questions than answers.

As Mr. Finke said in his reply, he did not connect the dots. So, let’s connect some dots and do a little math estimating. As a rough estimate Mr. Wever said that the Community Scholars have been around for about 6 years. The funding from EPISD was $75,000 last year and they just voted to give them more money this year.  Did EPISD give the community scholars this kind of money every year for the past six years? If so that would make about $450,000 in support from EPISD property tax payers.  Ysleta and Socorro ISD also donate funds to the Community Scholars.  Let’s say that they have funded them at about 75% of the EPISD level. That would total to $675,000 for those two districts provided they have been giving for six years. It is possible that in combination, the property tax payers in El Paso have funded the Community Scholars program to approximately $1,125,000. That makes a considerable pot of money.

Community Initiatives Inc., which includes the Community Scholars, filed a lawsuit on March 22, 2000 against Chase Bank, Bank of America, Norwest Bank, and Wells Fargo Bank. The catalyst for this lawsuit was supposedly the research accomplished by the students of the Community Scholars that purported to uncover lending practices by these banks that were inequitable toward the citizens of El Paso. Approximately 2 years later this lawsuit was dismissed. It is now on appeal.

True to my word, more questions that answers. Let’s connect some dots in this incomplete puzzle. Now this is mostly conjecture because of the lack of information and unwillingness to answer questions on the part of our governmental representatives. The El Paso Tribune will make an open records request to EPISD for information regarding the Community Scholars program. I would like to make an offer to anyone with more accurate information to write an article correcting any errors. The editor of the El Paso Tribune will be more than happy to post your article. Believe me when I say, in the interest of the truth I would be most happy to be corrected.

But, until then, here is what we know:

Eliot Shapleigh and Mary Hull Caballero start the Community Initiatives, Inc. Ray Caballero was the attorney for Community Initiatives Inc. and files suit against the major banks in El Paso, Mary Hull Caballero, the Ray Caballero’s wife was the executive director of Community Initiatives Inc. The school districts take tax-payer dollars and fund what they think is a program to help students. The Community Initiatives Inc./Community Scholars accumulates what could be up to over a million dollars. Ray Caballero wins the Mayoral election and he withdraws as attorney in this suit.

Dan Wever, President of EPISD, a member of its budget committee, votes to approve $75,000 worth of funding for the community scholars at the recommendation of Eliot Shapleigh. Dan Wever’s brother-in-law, Charles McNabb becomes the Chief Administration Officer for the city reporting directly to the mayor. The attorney representing EPISD and its board is Anthony Safi from the law firm of Mounce, Green, Meyers, Safi, and Galatzan. The attorney of record for Chase Bank (a defendant in the case) is Keith Meyers of Mounce, Green, Meyers, Safi, and Galatzan. The suit is dismissed by judge Lupe Rivera of the 168th Judicial District Court for being without merit. Evelina Ortega, partner of Ray Caballero, appeals the dismissal. The attorney fees just keep adding up on both sides of this fight and the property tax payers indirectly funding the plaintiff.

Do these dots connect? Only the major players in this game know for sure. However there are more questions to be asked.

  • How much did the attorney fees for the Community Initiatives Inc amount to and what was the source of that payment?
  • How much is the executive director for the Community Initiatives Inc. paid and what is the source of that payment?
  • How much money does the Community Initiatives Inc have at its disposal at the expense of the El Paso property tax payer?
  • Did anyone from EPISD raise the issue of a possible conflict of interest regarding the fact that their attorney sits and watches the Board give $75,000.00 over to a group that is suing, Chase Bank, another client of that attorneys law firm.
  • Why camouflage of the name Community Scholars by Mr. Wever to Summer Student Development Program at the EPISD Board of Trustee meeting on May 6, 2003?
  • Why put it up for bid in the first place when so many people had questions and concerns about it?
  • Why avoid the debate on the administration of this program?
  • Where is the El Paso Times, El Paso Inc. on this issue?
  • How about KVIA, KTSM, KINT, and KDBC? Why aren’t the news professionals asking these questions?
  • Why should the tax-payers continue to fund a group that is suing businesses?

In the game of government and politics, perception is reality. I think it is a safe bet that the perception of the Community Scholars program is not what it once was. With El Paso school districts facing dire financial circumstances in the near future, can they afford to give away grants to organizations that have more questions than answers? Can they afford to create a negative perception just prior to asking the voters to approve a bond issue?

The mantra you can expect to hear is that the Community Scholars program is for the kids. If there is anyone innocent in this quagmire, it is the Community Scholars themselves. But, they are the best and brightest of the three school districts. At $6100 per student, this program is, at best, inequitable in relation to other students and, at worst, corrupt by unscrupulous individuals. I believe this program is not the make or break event that will determine success or failure in the student’s lives. Therefore, if the Community Scholars were to end tomorrow they will survive and do just fine.

So the real question to ask is:

Do you think the Community Scholars program is really “just” for the kids?

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