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EPISD whistleblower sues district, alleges retaliation

By: Bill Melugin
EL PASO, Texas - An El Paso Independent School District former employee and whistleblower is suing the district after he says he was severely retaliated against, and denied his full retirement benefits.
Robbie Tafoya, a former Irvin High School teacher, spent 12 years in the district, and won a Congressional Teacher Award in 2009.

He medically retired from the district in March 2013, and says he's only received a quarter of the amount of retirement money he is owed. The Texas Education Agency was to hear his case against EPISD Tuesday morning.

Tafoya has a severe stutter and said he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, which he says was brought on by dealing with the retaliation against him and that the stutter had never existed before. He sat down with KFOX14 to explain:

"I worked for the El Paso Independent School District, where I was labeled as a whistleblower and disgruntled employee by the board," Tafoya said. "I first noticed [cheating] because they were using the students by race, and they would basically separate them by population on how they would test them. If they didn't have enough Hispanics in the area or African-American or Chinese or whatever, if there's not at least 50, they don't get counted. At that time, they were marking them as "other." When they mark other, they don't use it as part of the score for the TEA."

Tafoya told KFOX14 he noticed many of his African-American students were marking "other," and that some of his students were being held back in 9th grade, or jumped to 11th grade to avoid taking the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test.

"I had gone through all the proper channels. I first went to my principal when I noticed problems happening with the TAKS testing. Things just weren't right," Tafoya said.

Irvin's principal at the time was Luis Loya.

"In my first meeting with Mr. Loya, I introduced myself and he told me, 'I know who you are, I was handpicked to be here by [Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia] and [Assistant Superintendent James Anderson]. I just want you to know that," Tafoya said. Tafoya told KFOX14 when he asked Loya what that meant; he was told his family consumer sciences program was going to be "phased out."

Tafoya said Loya and Anderson began to routinely harass him and threaten his job because he kept reporting wrongdoing.

"Every time I was away from anybody that could hear us, Mr. Loya would constantly tell me, 'It's just going to be a few more days, maybe a week. It won't be long,'" Tafoya said. "I had long hair at the time; they called me Chief," and told me I would never get an administration job unless I looked more professional."

Tafoya told KFOX14 that one day he was called into the central office and told he was being investigated by the district.

"They just said, 'You need to sign this paper. There's allegations against you through the hotline. We can't tell you why, but when the investigation is over, we'll let you know,'" Tafoya said. "They called back after the investigation and said they found no evidence that I was in violation. They exonerated me of all charges, but never told me what I was being accused of."

Tafoya told KFOX14 after the harassment from Loya and Anderson continued, he filed numerous grievances with the district.

"One afternoon, Mr. Loya sent out an email that he was leaving Irvin," Tafoya said. "That day, Mr. Anderson came by and said, 'Mr. Tafoya, sometimes you've got to screw up before you move up. I just wanted to be the first one to tell you that Mr. Loya will be the new principal at Center for Career and Technology Education."

That move not only kept Loya as Tafoya's principal, but Loya then became his liaison with the district as well.

"I said, 'You can't do that. That program overseas my program at Irvin,'" Tafoya said. "And he was like, 'You're right, have a great day.'"

Loya eventually lost his job with EPISD after he was implicated in the Weaver audit.

He was one of the seven that they were trying to save, during the whole "reinstate eight" board meeting," Tafoya said. "He was the only one that wasn't reinstated, but there were still people that were on that list that were guilty. One of the ladies was actually his assistant principal at Irvin High School, who is at El Paso, (Grace Runkles) who is as guilty as the rest of them."

Tafoya told KFOX14 that several people who are still employed at the district were involved in cheating, but EPISD disagrees.

"During the previous administration, each case was investigated and brought to the then-elected Board of Trustees for review and resolution. EPISD has new leadership and has made changes to ensure the actions of the past do not happen again," said district spokeswoman Renee DeSantos. "The district has severed ties with Mr. Anderson and Mr. Loya. Both resigned from EPISD during the previous administration. Mr. Tafoya also resigned from EPISD on March 28, 2013. There is litigation pending regarding Mr. Tafoya . We cannot discuss his case."

DeSantos told KFOX14 that the Teachers Retirement System administers retirement accounts for public schools in Texas, not EPISD. A call to TRS was not immediately returned.

Tafoya told KFOX14 he's not asking for a large sum of money. He simply wants the district to admit the previous administration retaliated against him, and the retirement funds he says it took him 12 years to build.