State cleans house at scandal-infested Beaumont ISD

SMILE: This would-be meme featuring state Education Commissioner Michael Williams was enthusiastically cheered on a Facebook page for a Beaumont ISD reform group. Williams announced Monday the state would appoint a new superintendent and board to oversee the scandal-infested district.

By Jon Cassidy | Watchdog.org

Mike Neil got fired Monday, but he’s taking it well.

“I’m ecstatic about not having a school board job anymore,” he said.

Neil is one of seven trustees of the scandal factory known as the Beaumont Independent School District, which will be getting a new superintendent and Board of Trustees on June 15, thanks to Texas Commissioner of Education Michael Williams.

The state takeover follows a 19-count federal indictment of two school officials on charges of embezzling more than $4 million. Those two officials, Finance Director Devin McCraney and Comptroller Sharika Allison, changed their pleas to guilty Monday afternoon, as part of a plea deal that Neil said is expected to name 20 to 30 more school district officials.

Two weeks ago, the Texas Education Agency issued a damning report that found a near-complete lack of accounting controls at the district, not to mention school administrators who obstructed the investigation by disappearing for the entire time state investigators were in Beaumont.

Perhaps more stunning than the district’s failure to set up basic internal controls — for example, having one person make transactions and a different person review them — was their refusal to set up those controls after the investigations and the indictment of its finance officials made the problem obvious to all.

“The person responsible for the embezzlement told the TEA that he was able to embezzle substantial funds over a significant period of time because no one was watching his activities,” according to the report.

Yet when state investigators told the district it was critically important to hire an internal auditor, the district dismissed their concerns as “speculative,” according to the report.

The district insisted it started implementing some controls in August 2013, after one review, but McCraney was able to embezzle $570,925 after that date, according to investigators.

The TEA says that “the district’s continued denials and rejections of recommendations made by multiple agencies” made new leadership necessary.

Many residents came to the same conclusion almost two years ago, when the board decided to continue doing business with an electrical contractor named Calvin Walker, who had been charged with defrauding the district out of millions of dollars and had even admitted submitting phony six-figure invoices.

But voters haven’t had the chance to replace their school board since 2011, thanks to the U.S. Justice Department, which has blocked elections because civil rights officials don’t want to see any black members of the board lose their seats. Four of the board’s seven members are black. The district is 45.8 percent black, 35.3 percent white and 14.7 percent Latino.

The board majority’s accommodating attitude toward Walker convinced a number of residents there was something rotten going on with the board majority, Neil said.

“It goes back to us still doing business with Calvin Walker,” he said.

That sure got our attention at Watchdog.org — with nine articles on the school district last summer, we were the first news outlet outside of Beaumont to notice the stench of corruption and draw some attention to it.

Others followed, from The New York Times to NPR to MSNBC, but they were largely taken by the race angle, with MSNBC portraying the efforts of a group of reformers to be “a right-wing plot … to remove the board’s black majority.”

Neil credits that group of reformers, which is organized around a Facebook page, with the latest successes. He also credits the school employees and parents who were willing to go on the record with their complaints.

Since the federal indictments were handed down, the racial grievances and conspiracy theories have died off.

State Rep. Joe Deshotel, who like so many other officials kept silent until recently, joined the reform parade last week, welcoming a TEA takeover.

Neil said he expected the takeover after the TEA released such a critical report two weeks ago.

Among other findings, the TEA reported that Assistant Superintendent Patricia Lambert approved some $454,000 worth of printing contracts for a small business owned by her son, who was not an approved vendor.

The district’s defense, which TEA rejects, is that Lambert somehow doesn’t qualify as a “local government official” under the law, so it wasn’t technically a violation of federal law.

Contact Jon Cassidy at jon@watchdog.org or @jpcassidy000. If you would like to send him documents or messages anonymously, download the Tor browser and go to our SecureDrop submission page: http://5bygo7e2rpnrh5vo.onion

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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