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Arlington schools superintendent placed on leave

ARLINGTON -- Arlington school Superintendent Hector Montenegro has been placed on paid leave pending the outcome of an investigation into his relationships with outside education organizations.

School board members voted unanimously during a special meeting Thursday night to place Montenegro on leave and appoint Deputy Superintendent Jerry McCullough interim superintendent effective immediately.

"Tonight the board has made a very difficult but important decision," school board President Jim Ash said after the vote. "It is important that we follow all appropriate protocol."

Montenegro began working for the district Feb. 1.

In a Wednesday letter to trustees, Montenegro volunteered to go on paid leave as board members and lawyers look into his involvement with the groups and payments he has accepted from them.

"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 the two-page letter, which the Star-Telegram obtained Thursday.

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

"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 last month, trustees ordered Montenegro to detail his relationship with seven education groups after legal and ethical concerns were raised. Several of the groups have paid him honorariums for speaking at their events. Two of the groups do business with the district. Trustees hired an outside lawyer to review the honorariums and Montenegro's travel expenses.

Montenegro's lawyer, Neal Adams, said Thursday that Montenegro has cancelled all his speaking engagements and that he is not attending the Education Research and Development Institute meeting Friday and Saturday. ERDI is one of the groups involved in the investigation.

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 the 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.

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

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.

His three-year contract with the Arlington district includes a section allowing him to engage in consultation activities including writing, teaching and speaking engagements to other districts and educational entities as long as they don't interfere with his job and are conducted during holidays, non-duty days or during personal leave.

The contract also includes a "dismissal for good cause" item for "conscious misrepresentation of material facts to the Board or other district officials in the conduct of the district’s business."

A 2007 state law makes it a Class A misdemeanor for superintendents to receive payments or items of value from school district vendors or those who want to do business with the district.

Montenegro's letter was obtained hours after about 40 civil rights and church leaders from across North Texas rallied for him Thursday 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.

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