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Arlington schools chief offers to take paid leave

Arlington superintendent Hector Montenegro voluntarily offered to take a paid administrative leave of absence while the district investigates his relationship with outside nonprofits that paid him honorariums.

“You have my deepest apologies if I have used poor judgment, misspoken regarding district needs or have not been thorough enough in my communications with you,” he wrote in a two-page letter to the school board dated yesterday and obtained by the Star-Telegram.

“In no way have I knowingly or intentionally violated policy or broken the law,” he said.

The trustees were expected to decide tonight whether to put Montenegro on paid administrative leave while they investigated whether he broke a state law.

The trustees were also going to decide whether to appoint an interim superintendent.

“It is my hope that once this investigation is complete, the Board will feel that our relationship can continue,” Montenegro wrote. “I am committed to make amends, regain employee and public trust and strengthen the (management team) so that together we can continue to provide the leadership that the district needs.”

Late Thursday afternoon, neither Montenegro nor his attorney, Neal Adams, had spoken to the school board, Adams said.

Montenegro earlier cancelled all his speaking engagements, and Adams said Thursday afternoon that he is also not attending the Education Research and Development Institute meeting today and tomorrow. Montenegro is being investigated for his dealings with ERDI and six other groups.

Montenegro also returned $5,500 in honorariums to two other groups this week, Adams said. The groups are the Oregon Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents, which had given Montenegro a $3,000 honorarium; and San Antonio Area Association for Bilingual Education, which had given a $2,500 honorarium..

“Both of those, we don’t think there’s an issue, but considering the acrimony surrounding the honorariums, he has returned those,” Adams said.

These honorariums are in addition to the honorariums totaling $8,678 that he returned earlier this month for his dealings with other nonprofit groups including the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) Foundation; the National Association of Bilingual Education; Bilingual Education Association of the Metroplex.

Montenegro said he returned his district credit to the district’s associate superintendent of finance.

An outside attorney is looking into his relationship with nonprofits and travel expenses.

"I want to assure the Board that you will have my utmost cooperation in any matters that pertain to this investigation," Montenegro wrote.

Montenegro’s letter was obtained hours after about 40 civil rights and church leaders from across North Texas rallied for him this afternoon at the school district’s administrative offices.

Supporters of Montenegro said they want the Texas Education Agency to investigate superintendents of all Texas school districts to see if others have accepted honorariums.

They said Montenegro should be allowed due process and not be placed on administrative leave tonight.

The supporters were led by Kyev Tatum, a past chapter president of the NAACP; Hector Flores, immediate past national president of LULAC; and Arlington pastor Dwight McKissic.

They said Montenegro has done nothing illegal by taking honorariums. They said there may be a misunderstanding about a 2007 state law prohibiting the practice.

“There can not be a rush to judgment ... Don’t suspended him before all the facts are in,” McKissic said.

Tatum said he wants the Justice Department to investigate the Arlington school board to see if their actions have been discriminating against minority students, both in regards to Montenegro and relating to academic policies.

Tatum said if the board does learn Montenegro took honorariums when he shouldn’t have, then the Arlington superintendent should be punished but not removed.

“He could make more money out being a consultant instead of taking this crap” but stays in public education for the children, Tatum said.

Montenegro is the first superintendent to reflect the demographics of the Arlington school district, which is predominately Hispanic, and Tatum said that could be one of the reasons the superintendent is under such scrutiny.

Supporters said putting him on leave now will affect students adversely when they start school in a few weeks.

Mary Hernandez, a bilingual teacher at Roark Elementary School, said that in her 25 years in education, Montenegro is the first superintendent she’s had to come in and talk to her students.

“He doesn’t just sit down in an office,” she said. “He comes to campus and sees the programs first hand and tries to really understand what is going on and what you need,” she said.

Supporters said Montenegro was hired because of his national reach and proven record of having successes, not just a vision, they said.

“Failure is not an option for us,” said Lico Reyes, a long time LULAC representative in Arlington.

Montenegro’s connection with the HOPE Foundation, which promotes the Failure is Not an Option book and materials, is one of the relationships under investigation.

Staff writer Shirley Jinkins contributed to this report