By David Crowder
EL PASO, Texas (Reuters) - A former El Paso Independent School District superintendent will spend three and a half years in federal prison for leading a scheme to rig scores on standardized state tests by keeping certain students from taking the exams.
Senior U.S. District Judge David Briones sentenced Lorenzo Garcia at a Friday hearing and ordered him to pay $180,000 in restitution and a $56,500 fine. That was the same prison sentence set for Garcia as part of a plea agreement in June, and a key former state lawmaker had called for a harsher punishment.
After the hearing, U.S. Attorney Robert Pitman defended the sentence: "Forty-two months in a federal penitentiary is a significant deterrence, and we feel it is a just sentence."
Garcia, 56, who became superintendent in 2006, pleaded guilty to two federal charges in connection with schemes to defraud the El Paso school district and the federal government. One scheme involved testing and the other swindling the district out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The testing scheme, which went on from February 2006 through August 2011, involved inflating school scores for 10th-grade state assessments, according to federal documents.
Garcia, seeking to get contractual bonuses and to keep the district in compliance with the federal No Child Left Behind Act, directed administrators to hold transfer students from Mexico in 9th grade even if they passed and to improperly place other 9th graders in 11th grade, according to federal documents.
Students' credits were deleted, grades were changed; some students were forced out of school entirely and others were discouraged from enrolling in the first place, according to court documents.
Garcia, who resigned in November 2011, received more than $50,000 in bonuses while at the helm of the 64,000-student district.
The other count arose from a grand jury indictment alleging that Garcia and co-conspirators arranged a $450,000 contract for academic products with a consulting firm called IRA run by a woman with whom he had personal relationship.
As a result of Garcia's efforts, according to Pitman, IRA received $360,000 from the district.
But it was the testing scheme that inflamed the El Paso community and has led to calls for the resignations of members of the El Paso district's board of trustees and further investigation into the roles of current school administrators.
In 2010, a state senator from El Paso, Eliot Shapleigh, publicly accused Garcia and the district of gaming the system and hurting students. In response, Garcia helped organize student protests against Shapleigh.
After Garcia pleaded guilty in June as part of an agreement that included a 3-1/2-year sentence, Shapleigh, who left office when his term ended last year, filed a brief with Briones' court calling for a longer sentence and a higher fine.
"There is no way that this defendant can pay a restitution or fine commensurate with the actual damage his fraud has caused," the brief said. "Hundreds of students were deliberately deprived of an education.
"The long-term damage to these individuals and the lasting damage to the community's faith in its own educational system cannot be calculated."
Martin Alvarado Jr., whose three children attend elementary, middle and high school in the El Paso district, said he too was disappointed by the terms of Garcia's plea agreement.
"It's a shame things went so far that you have to put a superintendent in jail, but I think it's a necessity," Alvarado said. "Somebody had to be held responsible, and it has to start at the top and it has to be done."
(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Eric Walsh)