Cheating allegations at Wesley go back to 2003; Teacher had addressed HISD board meeting about problem

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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The fact there might be cheating at Wesley Elementary is not news to Houston officials.

In June 2003, former Wesley teacher Donna Garner stood before a meeting of the Houston school board and directly accused officials of cheating at Wesley. “I was instructed on how to cheat and that the expectation was that I would cheat,” she said, according to a copy of her speech.

District officials pledged an investigation. But it has taken the district a year and a half just to hire an outside law firm to do the investigating. The lengthy delays could make it harder to catch cheaters.

“When a great deal of time has passed between the incident and the investigation, people forget things,” said Suzanne Marchman, spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency. “And what happened on test day is not as clear as it was eight months ago or a year ago.”

A Houston Independent School District investigator interviewed Ms. Garner in September 2003, according to TEA records. The Houston school board decided an independent panel should investigate the allegations “because of the strong political overtones of such an investigation,” according to an HISD summary of the case.

But the district’s testing coordinator apparently did not assemble the panel before his retirement in March 2004.

His replacement, David Guetzow, contacted TEA and outlined his plans. He wanted to assemble three to five retired school administrators to objectively see if there is cheating at Wesley, according to TEA records. He asked TEA to help by providing a facilitator familiar with cheating investigations who could assist the independent panel. Mr. Guetzow said the whole process would be completed in two to three weeks.

“The school board prefers to handle this case as objectively and as free of political or racial overtones as possible,” Mr. Guetzow wrote. “Of particular concern is the fact that the allegations describe a well organized and regimented cheating environment. If true, this casts suspicions on all schools in the Acres Homes Charter district because former district head Thaddeus Lott was credited with maintaining a very disciplined and controlled charter program. It would be difficult to understand how the alleged cheating techniques, if true, could have escaped his knowledge.”

TEA agreed to provide the facilitator, and agency officials told HISD to let the agency know when they needed the facilitator to be provided.

TEA is still waiting.

“We have not heard back from HISD since May,” Ms. Marchman said.

In an e-mail dated Nov. 8, HISD’s general counsel, Elneita Hutchins-Taylor, put some of the blame for the delay on TEA. She wrote: “Part of the process which HISD did begin several months ago, was to contact TEA and request that the agency conduct an investigation. TEA has not formally responded to the district. It appears, however, that TEA does not intend to assist HISD in this matter.”

Ms. Marchman said that is false.

“TEA was never asked to conduct an investigation,” she said. “I don’t think the agency would deny Houston’s request or any other district’s request. The agency offers whatever services it can.” TEA officials recently assisted Houston when the district investigated fraudulent dropout reporting in Houston high schools.

Terry Abbott, a district spokesperson, said Thursday that the district is aware of the “lack of progress” in the Wesley investigation. Last month, HISD appointed a law firm as independent counsel to investigate. In a statement, Houston Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra promised a “full and thorough investigation.”