Fired Fort Worth principals were accused of fraud; 1 of racist comments, sexual harassment

Ben Noey Jr./Star-Telegram

Two Fort Worth Independent School District principals who were fired in September by the Board of Education — with no details released to the public at the time of the decision — were accused of fraud, racist treatment and sexual harassment, according to new records released by the Texas Education Agency.

New details behind the proposed terminations of James Garcia and Katrina Smith, former principals of Diamond Hill-Jarvis High and Eastern Hills High, come about two months after board members discussed the matter in a closed session before voting to remove the educators from their positions during a Sept. 26 board meeting. During public comment at the meeting, multiple community members, teachers and students defended Garcia’s and Smith’s leadership and called on the district to reinstate them to their positions.

The allegations outlining the reasons for their dismissals have been revealed through records obtained by the Star-Telegram through public information requests. Records show that both Garcia and Smith were accused of misconduct and fraud related to the purchase of certain goods at their respective high schools from funds that were part of a federal award. Specifically, they were accused of submitting fraudulent merchandise quotes for purchases by allowing one vendor to provide competitor quotes, rather than obtaining separate quotes from each vendor directly.

“In addition, there is no evidence that any of the goods purchased were ever delivered as ordered,” according to each of the district’s Sept. 29 notices to Garcia and Smith of their proposed terminations.

“As a long-time employee and administrator who received notice of proper procurement procedures, (Garcia and Smith) knew or should have known that by failing to personally obtain competitive bids for goods, (they) allowed a specific vendor to establish a barrier to open competition among qualified vendors,” the documents state.

The district’s office of professional standards received reports for Garcia and Smith in late June alleging the misconduct and fraud, and officials substantiated the allegations through an investigation, according to the records.

Garcia and Smith could not be reached for comment by phone on Thursday, and their attorneys were not immediately available for comment on Thursday afternoon. Fort Worth ISD officials declined to comment, citing confidential personnel matters and pending litigation.

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The allegations against Smith stop at fraud. But the allegations against Garcia extend to racist treatment and sexual harassment that was reported in the fall of the 2022-23 school year by a female employee at Diamond Hill-Jarvis, records show.

The district hired an outside law firm to do an investigation into the claims, which was completed in January of this year. The investigation found that Garcia “made race-based comments and jokes on a consistent basis and was present frequently when other (Diamond Hill-Jarvis) personnel made impermissible and unacceptable race-based remarks.”

“(Garcia) neither corrected nor stopped the other personnel from doing so, and often joined in. Several employees reported that (Garcia) appeared to endorse the behavior,” the records state.

Additionally, the investigation, which found that Garcia “made sexually-tinged comments” toward female employees, was reopened in the spring to interview people who were not initially contacted or interviewed. The extended investigation on Sept. 1 confirmed “further corroboration that (Garcia) made inappropriate race-based remarks or jokes, unwelcome comments of a sexual nature and created a toxic and negative work environment.”

Garcia also was accused of making false statements during the investigation by denying the allegations of making “racially-tinged” comments or jokes or failing to intervene when other employees made similar comments in Garcia’s presence, records show. Audio recordings confirmed the alleged statements and behavior that Garcia denied, according to the records.

Appeals of firings & community comments

Both Garcia and Smith obtained private legal counsel and filed appeals of their firings with the TEA, specifically requesting an independent hearing examiner to review Fort Worth ISD’s decision to terminate them. Two different examiners were assigned to each of their cases in October, but it appears Garcia has withdrawn his appeal.

A motion to dismiss the case, filed by Garcia, was granted by the examiner on Nov. 6. It’s unclear what happens next between Garcia and district officials.

“The educator in question withdrew their request for a hearing. There are no other procedures moving forward that involve TEA and the district may proceed with whatever action it decides,” TEA officials said in a statement Thursday.

For Smith, the recommendation of the examiner must be issued before Dec. 11, but the deadline can be extended to Jan. 25, 2024, if Smith and the district agree to an extension. The recommendation will return to the Fort Worth Board of Education for a final decision, but Smith has the right to also appeal that decision if she chooses.

At the September board meeting, Eastern Hills special education teacher Jeremy Orsagh was one of Smith’s supporters who called her a “positive role model” with “unbending integrity” that prioritized the needs and well-being of students, faculty and staff.

“She demands excellence and sets the tone for success by building her students, teachers and staff up with an organized, cheerful, yet demanding atmosphere,” he said. “Ms. Smith truly believes Eastern Hills is the pride of the east side.”

Roxanne Rodriguez, a Diamond Hill-Jarvis High parent and president of the school’s athletics booster club, also spoke at the September meeting, stating that Garcia’s absence had resulted in issues with drinking water for students and maintenance of the school’s athletic fields.

“Since Mr. Garcia has been the principal of Diamond Hill, we have seen the campus gain stability, make academic growth and significantly improve parent and community engagement,” she said. “It is deeply concerning how the district is treating our veteran principals at some of our highest-need campuses with no regard to impact on our students.”

Both Smith and Garcia have spent more than 20 years as educators in Fort Worth ISD, according to their personnel files obtained by the Star-Telegram. Smith had been principal at Eastern Hills High for about six years, and Garcia had been principal at Diamond Hill-Jarvis High for about seven years. Reference documents for both Smith and Garcia showed positive ratings and remarks from colleagues that vouched for them throughout their careers.