Guest Editorial: Taking Back our School District– The Job of the Community and NOT an Exercise in Politics

Editor’s note: The following was submitted by: Ursula Buenaventura

“Talk is cheap.” So goes the cliché, which in the case of the recent letter to the El Paso Independent School District Board penned by the El Paso County leader and a number of politicians and prominent business leaders seems most befitting.

Over the past few months, El Paso has been subjected to a well coordinated and relentless barrage of attacks that seem to follow County Judge Veronica Escobar’s climatic letter in the same vein of faux indigence. The voice of El Paso’s current ruling political faction has decided to continuously highlight the obvious and by now, sadly well known failures of the El Paso Independent School District’s (EPISD) Board of Trustees.

Not to be outshined in the department of collective self-righteousness, Representative Steve Ortega, never one to shy away from grabbing the spotlight, topped his fellow city representatives’ absurd proposal for the city to stage a hostile takeover of the school district (yes, even Representative Courtney Niland’s insult to students of EPISD, past and present, for having graduated as failures, in her view).  Ortega’s grand proposal was that there should be full-time offices for each of the school trustees and a number of other silly and forgettable proposals that only serve to make one question what law school granted this man a degree in jurisprudence!  He certainly hasn’t a clue about sound fiscal management principles (witness his enthusiastic support of certificates of obligations not to pay for emergency capital projects but to fund asset appreciation venues for millionaires).

Meanwhile, Representative Byrd, a champion of the central district and real estate deals that will coincidentally increase the value of commercial properties owned and by her parents and coincidentally (of course) on the market is the main cheerleader for a cyber-collective outrage seeking to oust the bright light bulbs on Boeing.

And all this entire distressing collective of political teeth gnashing and chest beating is topped by resounding glorification by the press and the local, self-elected pillars of self-righteousness of that great savior, former Texas State Senator, Elliot Shapleigh.  His followers and “cheerios” have elevated him to a status equal to that of father of the nation for first sounding off the battle cry.  And if you think that is an exaggeration, witness a recent “Nachotoon” in the El Paso Times featuring a buff, bare-chested depiction of San Elliot leading the charge for “EPISD Reform and Accountability,” bayonet and flag in hand as he steps over dead bodies and confronts an Abraham Lincoln-like character, seemingly representing the status quo (chancla-bearing natives are in the background cleaning up the aftermath).

This was topped by yet another El Paso Times editorial calling upon the citizenry to pursue legal action to remove the trustees.  In the “expert” legal opinion of the newspaper’s editor, Bob Moore, the EPISD Board of Trustees has unequivocally and emphatically violated the law because it failed to “oversee” the internal auditor when it fell asleep at the helm of a ship the trustees were ill-equipped to maneuver.  The trustee’s crime, not “allegedly” mind you, was foolishly allowing the now convicted and disgraced former Superintendent, Lorenzo García, to coordinate an audit into the now unfortunate incidents that barred minority and low-income students from receiving a fair and proper education so that the district could meet the requirements of No Child Left Behind and he could extract a bonus to support his tremendous libido.

The fact that Mr. Moore is neither a prosecutor nor even a representative of a body empowered with the statutory or regulatory authority to make such a strong determination or charge does not seem to matter.

Is the man even an attorney or for that matter, have any formal training in education law? Doesn’t matter! So grand is Mr. Moore’s hubris that reportedly he seeks out other members of the local media to interview him about his front page opinions. It makes Rupert Murdoch seem like an amateur!  Too bad that same moral outrage isn’t applied to investigating shady professional sports stadium deals or news mediums that collaborate with elected officials to dupe citizens into approving the measure while his organization, in dire financial distress, also manages to partake in the spoils by selling its property to house the new city hall…. Befuddled yet? This is not fiction, by the way.

Sadly, in all this of hysteria and calls for near public lynching, the one glaring omission has been recognition for the plight of those children who were so shamefully cheated by Garcia, his cronies and yes, a weak and ineffective board of trustees that failed miserably in its primary fiduciary responsibility to the students of EPISD and their families. Public apologies to those students at a recent board meeting by a disappointing minority of the trustees, two of them that landed in the midst of this drama like deer blinded by headlights, have been the only public semi-acknowledgement of the true tragic victims of this great debacle… by anyone!

Even St. Elliot, who in his public rallies provided EPISD families and teaching professionals a safe forum to vent their anger and frustration with the situation and the subterfuge they have endured for years (and generated support for his beatification), also failed to make a credible attempt to make right by those children.  While it is reported that he challenged every individual who spoke out to think or express what they were going to “do about it” and to support the cyber EPISD outrage group his exercises have failed to do anything tangible for these young victims. Instead, they gave us more of the same: cheap talk.

Other state elected officials like State Representative Marisa Marquez, State Senator Jose Rodriguez and others (that also signed on to the County Judge’s sanctimonious letter) fail to address that burning question: What about the STUDENTS?

All this leads to one conclusion: the EPISD community, parents, teachers and students, simply cannot rely on or trust these political figures to be the solution to the problems facing the school district.  For one, it is too tempting for politicians to be opportunistic and use the plight of the community for self-serving political agendas. Remember Representative Steve Ortega, camcorder in hand, sitting in traffic on the international bridge instead of sitting at city hall taking care of the affairs that voters who sent him to office expect him to?  And even more infamous, remember Judge Escobar’s embarrassing campaign to keep Ft. Bliss in one congressional district even when it had never been so, and using even public resources (the county attorney) to advocate for a Republican-drawn congressional map that resulted in the shifting of almost 60,000 voters to a San Antonio district?

Let’s be realistic.  These political maneuvers were not necessarily out of concern for the welfare of the greater El Paso region, but represented a shameful use of these politicos’ respective offices and power to promote favorable conditions for their best friend and ally, Beto O’Rourke, in his efforts to win the Democratic Party nomination for Congress. (Never mind that they’ve never really cared for the Democratic Party or any other; to El Paso’s “young” progressives the end justifies the means.)

See, one of the worst kept secrets in town lately is that Representative Susie Byrd has her eyes on the EPISD board, and perhaps doling out the rest of the positions to friends and allies.  Thus can cynics and reasonable individuals be blamed for doubting the ulterior motives behind the collective campaign against the present board trustees? It would be par for the course, as they say.

And so we come back to the same conclusion: the parents and students and greater EPISD community cannot trust in these politicians to fix our district and our schools. The mere idea of allowing them control over El Paso’s largest taxing entity should be enough to cause taxpayers’ serious heartburn.

What all those non-elected officials who signed on to Judge Escobar’s letter should do instead is follow the example set by Mr. Richard Dayoub, President and CEO of the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce.

In a July 8, 2012 editorial in the El Paso Times, Mr. Dayoub showed perhaps the only example of seemingly genuine concern and objective leadership in this debacle.  Instead of pointing the same tired fingers and repeating the same tired talking points, he pledges his organization’s members’ continued commitment to work with the school district and its constituents and support them by exploring why and how these unfortunate events occurred and exploring steps to prevent it from reoccurring.

While urging citizens to closely vet any candidate for school board, he eloquently points out intelligent solutions that have always been at the heart of the Chamber’s proven commitment to support our schools and ensure the excellence needed for the sound economic prosperity and true sustainability of our city.  He further accurately points out a critical need for sound policies and enforcement procedures at EPISD.

It is obvious by now that EPISD trustees, part-time volunteers with little experience in proper risk management or finance, if not inept, are simply overwhelmed and need help desperately.  Expelling every single member of the present board and replacing them with new personalities without changing the risk management and control structure and above all, the culture within EPISD, will only result in continued failure.

In keeping with the vein of Mr. Dayoub’s sound recommendations, I would urge some of those prominent business leaders who signed Escobar’s letter to join Mr. Dayoub’s call, in particular Mr. Hunt and Mr. Foster and even Mr. Bill Sanders to actively participate in the Chamber’s efforts to nudge El Paso’s largest school district to soundness by promoting a model of sound governance and ethics.

I would also challenge other leaders like the commanding officers at Ft. Bliss, UTEP President Diana Natalicio, local bank presidents and even local officers of the Federal Reserve to join the effort.  In each of their respective organizations, these leaders have risk and audit professionals who possess the essential skillset for helping the school district achieve this.

Specifically, what this special leadership group can do is:

  1. Conduct a diagnostic study of the failures in controls and process that resulted in a system and culture that allowed a single individual to circumvent policy and regulatory standards to benefit himself and his “interests” financially and otherwise.
  2. Assess the effectiveness of the district’s internal audit function and determine why the district’s internal auditor, someone who if a true audit professional, should have known that Lorenzo Garcia was circumventing sound audit principles and gone to the board—unless he was made to fear for his livelihood, evidence again of a poor risk culture—and if necessary, replace him or add someone more competent and with backbone.
  3. This “post-mortem” analysis should be followed by clear and actionable recommendations based on sound industry-accepted standards for proper control and oversight that will result in changes to policies and procedures, and perhaps the appointment of more capable risk personnel at the district, followed by a program of continuing education and training for auditors, the administration and the board in sound risk management and control.

The chief risk and internal audit officers from the private and public organizations that these leaders represent possess this capacity to quickly identify the control weaknesses and failures and above all, recommend pragmatic and effective solutions to prevent reoccurrence.

Finally, if elected officials truly want to help the district, they should drop the political games and should introduce legislation in Austin to require every elected school board trustee in Texas to receive annual training on proper risk management and control that will help them ensure they are truly fulfilling their fiduciary responsibility to the public school students and families they were elected to serve. (This means you Senator Rodriguez and Representatives Marquez and Margo).

Pointing out that the trustees are “flailing” benefits no one, certainly not our students and their families.  It only promotes further distrust and cynicism.  Trustees are clearly in over their head and they need help.  Indictments if appropriate should come from law enforcement.  The community needs to take back our schools and those in a true leadership capacity with the power and resources to bring about true and effective change need to give us more than a signature.  In the end, all will benefit from a sound and well-managed school district that is focused on producing tomorrow’s leaders.

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