State Sen. Eliot Shapleigh opposes EPISD tax rise
May 20, 2010
State Sen. Eliot Shapleigh opposes a tax increase for the El Paso Independent School District, saying its leadership is inefficient, central administration salaries are bloated, and Bowie High School has violated the civil rights of students.
Written by Zahira Torres, El Paso Times
AUSTIN -- State Sen. Eliot Shapleigh opposes a tax increase for the El Paso Independent School District, saying its leadership is inefficient, central administration salaries are bloated, and Bowie High School has violated the civil rights of students.
Shapleigh said in an interview that administrators inappropriately moved certain students out of Bowie High in an attempt to raise the school's performance on standardized tests and avoid negative publicity.
School administrators, though, said Shapleigh misinterpreted data or made incorrect assumptions that cast a negative light on Bowie. They said some students simply moved or transferred, so Shapleigh's allegations of enrollment manipulation were untrue.
The EPISD is seeking a tax increase in an election June 15. Shapleigh, D-El Paso, is in the final year of his Senate term and is not seeking re-election in November. He is the first elected official to publicly oppose the district's tax proposal.
Bowie High is in the final stage of restructuring after failing to meet federal standards for six consecutive years. Under that stage, a school could face closure if it does not improve.
Bowie passed last year's federal accountability measures, but it is not out of trouble until it succeeds for two consecutive years.
Shapleigh said 214 freshmen at Bowie in 2007 were transferred to other campuses, sent to charter schools, deported to another country or held back a year. He said most of those students were in the bottom half of the class, which originally had 381 members.
Accountability standards of the federal No Child Left Behind policy assess the scores of sophomores on the state's standardized tests. The accountability measures also consider high-school graduation rates when determining whether a campus meets standards.
Shapleigh said that of the 381 Bowie students who began as freshmen, only 167 took the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test as sophomores.
"Keeping 55.4 percent of freshmen from taking tests might make a superintendent look good for his next contract, but it inflicts serious damage to the spirit of the ninth-grade child who needs an education to get a job," Shapleigh said. He said teachers alerted him to the issue.
Officials of the Texas Education Agency said they had looked into Shapleigh's concerns about Bowie High but found no evidence of misconduct by the district.
Agency officials said schools that are facing federal sanctions often have high numbers of transfer students because the law allows them to leave low-performing campuses.
Lorenzo Garcia, superintendent of the El Paso Independent School District, did not dispute the numbers Shapleigh has used. But, Garcia says, the senator is skewing information.
Garcia said Bowie graduated 236 students last year, compared with 148 five years ago.
He said the same class that Shapleigh is referring to expects to graduate 247 students. Garcia said most of the students who were no longer part of that class at Bowie had been accounted for. The exceptions were 18, who have been listed as dropouts, he said.
Garcia said the statistics show that some students failed and others were promoted a grade after meeting requirements. Still others moved to different schools or back to Mexico, often by choice, he said.
But, Garcia said, the district did enforce a policy to remove students who did not live within the campus attendance boundaries.
"I have met with him (Shapleigh) and reviewed the numbers with him, and I feel badly that he just doesn't seem to understand," Garcia said. "Instead of downgrading Bowie and making them feel bad for something good, we should be celebrating their success."
Garcia said that of the 19 students who returned to Mexico, some did so of their own volition. The district forced others to withdraw from Bowie because they could not provide documentation of district residency.
He said the district follows the same practice for U.S. citizens who do not belong at a school because they do not live within its attendance boundaries.
"We have to protect the best interest of our taxpayers," Garcia said. "If a student doesn't live within our district, we do have a system in place to withdraw that student."
The superintendent said Shapleigh began seeking information from the Texas Education Agency in August and then submitted open-records requests to the district.
Garcia said he and his staff explained the data during a January meeting with Shapleigh, alumni and a trustee. He said he thought Shapleigh's questions had been answered.
Garcia said it was "curious" that Shapleigh's questions about Bowie did not resurface until a month before the election.
If approved, the tax increase could help the district tap into millions of dollars in additional state money, its administrators say.
District property owners would pay an additional $130 annually for every $100,000 of property value.
Officials said that if voters provide the district an additional $17.5 million, it would draw an extra $19.3 million from the state in matching funds.
But Shapleigh said many district residents cannot afford the increase.
He said he also planned to vote against the tax increase because the average salaries of central office administrators have grown from $70,521 in 2004-05 to $101,181 in 2007-08. He said the numbers provide a stark comparison with the state average, which was at $83,529 during the 2007-08 year. He provided a list of 85 salaries that ranged from $79,663 to $280,258.
Shapleigh also said he still had concerns about the FBI's public corruption investigation that led to convictions of some school trustees and past employees. He said systemic reforms were needed to guard against more corruption.
"Count up the corruption pleas and indictments; most deal with EPISD construction, technology and Medicaid services," Shapleigh said. "We hear that many issues remain. Not a single dollar has been returned to the taxpayer."
Shapleigh said he would not support a tax increase unless the district changed the date of the election and had "another leader who has a better plan for real results."
Garcia said his district has fewer administrators than others so it can pay higher salaries. He also said EPISD had fully cooperated with the FBI investigation.
"We have worked extensively to revamp our procedures where all of our purchasing is very transparent," Garcia said. "If the FBI has a concern, I will be happy to meet with them, but I know of no problem."
He said he was disappointed that Shapleigh was calling for his removal and opposing a ballot measure that would benefit students and teachers.
Lucy Clarke, president of the El Paso Federation of Teachers and Support Personnel, said she had heard rumblings that students were being transferred out of Bowie High School.
"I have discussed it with several people. I've even discussed it with the principal at Bowie, and I really don't know who is correct on this information," she said.
Clarke said the Bowie principal told her that he was revoking permission for transfer students who do not live within the school's attendance boundaries to attend Bowie if they are not performing well. She said that was within his right.
"If a student has poor attendance, or poor grades, or has been a discipline problem, it is the principal's right to cancel that permit between one year and the next," she said.
The teachers' union has not taken a stand on the tax increase, but Clarke said the neutrality had nothing to do with the transfer issue. She said her members took a vote on whether to support the increase, but the ballots did not yield a majority vote in favor or against.
At issue is a potential raise for the district's 9,000 employees. But some employees worry that the increase may be canceled out if the dis
trict chooses to raise health insurance premiums.
Marcelo Campos, the president of the Bowie High School Alumni Association, is part of a group called Equipo Bowie, which was started by Shapleigh to analyze whether the campus had progressed.
Campos said that when group members first heard the numbers from Shapleigh they were astonished. Then, after listening to the district's explanation, they concluded that there was no wrongdoing.
Campos said there would be an uproar from students, parents and teachers if the school had pushed out students.
"Have you heard of any students complaining about that happening?" he said. "We are talking about hundreds of kids who were supposedly told not to show up or to get out."
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