MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
The recent cheating scandal in Atlanta has cast a shadow over the city's school system. If Atlanta's school superintendent or any of the people accused of falsifying test results go to jail, they won't be the first. Lorenzo Garcia, the former superintendent of schools in El Paso, has been sitting in a federal prison since last year.
And as NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports, the school system he left behind is now in turmoil.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Right across James Bowie High School in the Whataburger parking lot, where students like to hang out, the last thing kids want to talk about is the cheating scandal.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: It's not true, huh? It's not true.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Yeah, it is.
(Foreign language spoken)
Yeah, it's true. And it does look bad because everybody looks down on us.
SANCHEZ: Some don't event want to believe it happened. These girls say it's embarrassing. Students have every right to be embarrassed, says El Paso School Board President Isela Castanon Williams.
ISELA CASTANON WILLIAMS: We had a superintendent who engaged in criminal activity and worked with others inside the district to commit that crime.
SANCHEZ: Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia's plan was to inflate test scores at Bowie by not testing the poorest performing 10th graders, changing failing grades to passing grades and forcing struggling students to drop out of school altogether. It worked. Bowie's rating quickly went from failing to academically acceptable.
Everybody looked good - the district, the school board, the state - while Garcia collected more than $56,000 in bonuses. Twice he was nominated for Texas Superintendent of the Year.
Again, board president Isela Castanon Williams.
WILLIAMS: His work was being praised all over the state. He was making presentations all over the state.
SANCHEZ: Until a counselor at Bowie complained and rumors about the cheating spread.
MARK EMANUEL MENDOZA: My name is Mark Emanuel Mendoza. And what I was hearing was anecdotal stories from the students themselves. Many students were being, in my opinion, coerced into dropping from school.
SANCHEZ: Mendoza was the school district's director of student services. Initially, the rumors were dismissed as just that, says Mendoza. The reason Garcia got away with it for so long - first at Bowie then at other schools - was because he had people's careers in his hands, including Mendoza's.
MENDOZA: And this superintendent was known for, if you said no to him, you were gone.
SANCHEZ: In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education in Washington and the Texas Education Agency, TEA, got wind of the alleged cheating. Twice, though, state investigators cleared Garcia of any wrongdoing. Late in 2010, the FBI started looking into another Garcia scheme, a bogus $450,000 contract he awarded to a girlfriend. By then, the El Paso Times and a state senator from El Paso were conducting their own investigations.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWSCAST)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The EPISD superintendent figured he'd return to work today after his arrest on corruption charges. But the school board...
SANCHEZ: Garcia's arrest in August 2011 was, of course, a huge local story. Nationally, it was just one more in a string of cheating scandals blamed on the enormous pressure to raise test scores mandated by No Child Left Behind.
The scandal in El Paso, though, is not just about cheating. It's about state and local school officials running for cover and blaming each other for letting it happen. To this day, school board president Isela Castanon Williams insists the board didn't go after Garcia because it couldn't. Why?
WILLIAMS: Well, truthfully, because even though there had been many rumors in the community - the FBI had been investigating, the Texas Education Agency had done two investigations and found absolutely no wrongdoing. And so there was no evidence at that point on which the board could to take action against that superintendent.
MICHAEL WILLIAMS: The response by the El Paso, the school board, was wholly insufficient
SANCHEZ: Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams.
WILLIAMS: Once it became evident that wrongdoing had occurred, the school board still did nothing. That is the reason for my action.
SANCHEZ: Williams has stripped the elected school board of its authority and appointed a five-member board of managers to oversee the district for at least two years. He has also asked the state auditor to examine why TEA investigators cleared Garcia in the first place. Board president Isela Castanon Williams says TEA is just papering over its own negligence.
WILLIAMS: TEA failed this school district, and it failed this board of trustees.
SANCHEZ: There's a lot of blame to go around, says Guillermo Glenn, a parent and longtime community activist. But it was board members who should have stopped Garcia and didn't, says Glenn.
GUILLERMO GLENN: I think the school board is responsible. That's where the buck stops. And our concern is that this scandal will blow over and things will continue the way they were.
SANCHEZ: Last week, the Texas State Senate passed legislation vowing to investigate cheating in schools more aggressively. In El Paso, two federal investigations are ongoing. At least six former district employees could still face charges for allegedly helping Garcia carry out his scheme.
School officials, meanwhile, are trying to track down the students caught up in that scheme. They're called los desaparecidos, the disappeared, or some say the forgotten.
XAVIER MIRANDA: Kids were denied an education and educators just stood by.
SANCHEZ: For Xavier Miranda, the scandal is a wake-up call. Miranda is a highly regarded teacher at Coronado High School, in one of El Paso's wealthiest neighborhoods. He has requested a transfer to Bowie High School because, he says, it's the best way to channel his anger about what happened at Bowie.
MIRANDA: I'm a product of there. I went there. I had teachers that cared. And I'm a teacher. I want to give back.
SANCHEZ: If we abandon those kids now, says Miranda - fighting back tears - then everybody in El Paso, not just the discredited superintendent Lorenzo Garcia, will have betrayed them.
Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.