Former Spring Branch Administrators Face Investigations, Prison Time After Cheating Scandal in El Paso Area School Districts

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Lorenzo Garcia and Damon Murphy led distinguished careers in the Spring Branch Independent School District. Now both are linked to a cheating scandal in the El Paso Independent School that has left Garcia serving a 42-month sentence in a federal prison and Murphy resigning in disgrace from his job in nearby Canutillo.

Garcia told colleagues in the El Paso district his ultimate goal was to serve as the state's commissioner of education. Two years ago, that would have seemed so far-fetched. Garcia was an area superintendent in Spring Branch and Texas principal of the year while he served at Spring Woods High School. In 2008, the University of Houston's College of Education named him a distinguished alumnus.

When former education commissioner Mike Moses plucked Garcia from Spring Branch in 2003 to go to the Dallas Independent School District as a deputy superintendent, Garcia expressed nothing but sadness leaving the district.

"It is with some sadness that I submit my resignation to you, as Assistant Superintendent for Accountability, Technology and Support," Garcia wrote in his letter to then-Superintendent Yvonne Katz. "I would like to thank you and the Spring Branch family for the help and support that you all provided during my ten-year tenure in this great district. Being a part of the Spring Branch Independent School District has been a great, rewarding experience for me, and I wish you and all of my Spring Branch colleagues the very best in the future."

Nothing in Garcia's personnel file at Spring Branch hinted that he would eventually plead guilty to two counts of conspiracy to commit mail fraud in a cheating scandal that rocked the El Paso community. He was accused of forcing students off the books in El Paso to raise the school district's ratings. Nor that Garcia would admit to steering a $450,000 no-bid contract to a mistress he met while he was still in Houston.

In fact, much of Garcia's performance in Spring Branch is a mystery, as open records laws allow for the exemption of evaluations or appraisals. All Garcia's file shows is some college transcripts -- minus grades -- a couple of glowing references when he applied and a progressively rising salary during his decade with the district.

If his personnel record is a guide, Murphy crossed paths with Garcia when he applied to serve as principal of Spring Woods High School back in 2002, when Garcia was an assistant superintendent. He would eventually go on to be an administrative principal at Spring Woods, then principal at Spring Branch Middle School, before he resigned in May 2006 to join Garcia in El Paso.

Murphy's personnel file offered even less insight, except he took just over $9,000 unused sick leave/personnel days, money he said he was using for moving expenses to El Paso.

He probably came to regret that move. Murphy leveraged his service as associate superintendent in El Paso to his own job as superintendent in Canutillo three years ago. By the time Garcia was indicted, Murphy was implicated. An internal audit in Canutillo turned up possible irregularities in the 6,000-student district just north of El Paso. According to the El Paso Times, the Canutillo ISD trustees accepted Murphy's resignation just after midnight last night, bringing an end to his contract and avoiding the legal bills around firing him.

In today's online article, board president Armando Rodriguez expressed an eagerness to work with the Texas Education Agency, which intends to launch an investigation into whether Canutillo cheated federal accountability standards.

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