Lancaster, TX - Concerns about the former Lancaster schools superintendent’s controversial $2 million buyout and influence over his trustees are being shared with the FBI, officials said.
Elijah Granger served as superintendent of the 7,500-student district until late 2020, when an unusual exit agreement flagged the attention of courts and state investigators.
A forensic audit by the district found a “pattern” that Granger controlled and influenced the appointment and election of new board members, offered consulting contracts to some trustees to persuade them to step down, and worked with officials at nearby districts to get favorable trustees jobs.
Such moves allowed Granger to maintain the support of a four-vote majority that approved salary raises and, eventually, “the largest severance payout ever authorized to a school district Superintendent” in the country, according to an audit summary released by the district late Wednesday.
Trustees shared the findings with the Texas Education Agency and the U.S. Department of Education while the firm’s auditors forwarded concerns to the FBI, a district spokeswoman said.
An attorney for Granger called the audit report’s recommendation to refer the matter to law enforcement agencies “a complete sham” and described the report as an attempt to smear Granger with voters and the public.
“[N]o one – not the Board, the auditors, the TEA, the Department of Education, nor any official with any law enforcement agency – has ever contacted Dr. Granger to ask even a single question investigating the subject matter of this ‘audit,’” attorney Walt Taylor said in a statement.
In October 2020, the board voted 4-3 to extend Granger’s contract for an additional five years. But less than two weeks later, the same four trustees approved the large severance payment, puzzlingly buying him out of his brand new contract.
Auditors found that former Lancaster Superintendent Elijah Granger attempted to influence board elections and appointments.(Lawrence Jenkins)
The three dissenting trustees challenged the buyout in court, resulting in the payout being declared null and void as TEA opened an investigation into the matter.
Meanwhile, elections changed the board makeup, giving the three dissenters a new majority and the ability to end Granger’s employment. They also hired Weaver and Tidwell, LLP to conduct a forensic audit into his time leading the district.
Board President Marion Hamilton, who has served on the board since 2009, addressed the public about the findings at a Tuesday night board meeting.
From “2017 up into 2020, I’m sure you all sat in the same audience and watched the board and wondered what was going on,” Hamilton said.. “This brought out information that a lot of us … already knew was transpiring as well as additional eye opening information that we wouldn’t have thought was going on in our administration.”
Auditors found that Granger attempted to influence trustees’ moves in 2017 when he was serving as interim superintendent after the former schools leader departed.
Granger allegedly emailed the board “regarding the negative impact” the superintendent search — conducted by an outside firm — was having on the communications department.
Granger also exchanged emails with an attorney who prepared agenda items that would allow the board to suspend the superintendent search and name him the lone finalist for the job. They did so, eventually naming Granger the district leader.
Granger repeatedly offered consulting contracts to board members, auditors said. In December 2019, he offered such a contract to trustee Ty G Jones “in an apparent effort to get him to resign from his position on the board and not seek re-election,” auditors wrote.
The superintendent proposed a one-year contract that would give Jones more than $4,000 each month. But the trustee rejected Granger’s proposal, saying he could do more for the district in his role on the board, according to the auditing summary.
Jones said he learned of a similar offer made to a former trustee after reading through auditor’s initial findings. That’s when he alerted auditors of his own experience.
The trustee said he regularly voted against proposals to increase Granger’s pay or expand the superintendent’s authority. Jones saw the consulting offer as “one means to remove one of those obstacles, which would allow him to have more power,” he said on Thursday morning.
The district’s auditors found instances wherein Granger allegedly attempted to intimidate trustees who did not agree with him. In March 2019, for example, he initiated a formal inquiry into trustee Hamilton over claims that some travel records were missing.
“The investigation appeared to be unfounded and the true intent appeared to be the intimidation and harassment of Trustee Hamilton in an effort to remove her from the Board or force her to resign,” auditors wrote.
The firm noted that Granger allegedly targeted trustee Carolyn Ann Morris, advocating area lawmakers to pass legislation that would have excluded her from serving on the school board because of certain felony or misdemeanor violations. The resulting legislation did not preclude Morris from serving.
Lancaster ISD, under Granger’s leadership, did sue Morris with a judge eventually ruling that she could not serve as a special education advocate while a sitting trustee.
Interference in board elections and appointments
Granger interfered in the school board’s elections and vacancy appointments, auditors said. For instance, in the months leading up to May 2019 board elections, the district published articles — at the direction of Granger — in its magazine that “appeared to promote certain candidates,” appearing to represent political advertising, according to the firm’s findings.
After a trustee resigned in April 2018, the district published a vacancy notice on its website. Two candidates submitted applications, including one with a master’s degree and experience working in education. The other candidate, Kevin Davis, Jr., had limited professional experience and no education qualifications above a high school diploma, according to the auditors. He was also not a registered voter in Lancaster at the time.
But just after the deadline to submit resumes and letters of interest for the seat, Granger allegedly updated Davis Jr.’s resume to include additional work history and revised his address from Cedar Hill to Lancaster. Davis Jr. was eventually appointed to the board without any discussion of the other candidate, according to auditors.
Several months later, Davis Jr. was hired for a teacher aide position in nearby Duncanville ISD, where Granger previously served as board president.
The former trustee denied that his past employment had anything to do with Granger. Davis Jr. said he applied to Duncanville because he couldn’t work for the city because of a “conflict of interest.” He said he stayed at Duncanville for a couple of weeks before moving onto a job in DeSoto ISD.
Meanwhile, they found trustee Rhonda Davis-Crawford was hired in an administrative role in Greenville ISD in mid-2020. Granger’s spouse, Demetrus Liggins, was superintendent in Greenville ISD at the time. Davis-Crawford, who currently serves on the board, did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.
Representatives with Duncanville and Greenville ISDs did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.
Auditors raised concerns about Granger’s relationship with former board president Ellen Clark. For example, Clark provided real estate services to Granger in 2018, assisting him in the purchase of personal property, but auditors could not find evidence that Clark disclosed the relationship to the district.
Then after Granger left Lancaster ISD — and Clark lost her reelection to return to the board — the two went into business together at Clark’s real estate office. Clark did not respond to a request for comment.
Much of the auditors’ report focuses on the circumstances leading up to Granger’s buyout and contract alterations. In October 2020, when the board approved the five-year extension, they also modified his contract in substantial ways, including the addition of a provision that required LISD to pay Granger’s legal fees should the district take legal action against him.
The revisions were approved by the board without legal counsel present to review the changes, according to the auditors. Clark, then board president, denied a motion to delay the contract changes until they could consult with attorneys.
The morning after Clark lost her reelection bid — thereby changing the board majority — Granger allegedly said that trustees Hamilton, Jones and Morris were “out to get him” and that the rest of the board could buy out his contract, according to the investigation findings.
During a closed meeting of the board in early November 2020, an attorney presented the $2 million voluntary severance agreement for Granger, putting Lancaster at risk of losing state funds. Texas law docks state funding from school districts that award superintendent buyout agreements in excess of one year of salary and benefits.
The board voted 4-3 to approve the severance package, but did not publicly state why such an unusual vote was taken. Clark also refused to provide a draft copy of the severance agreement to other board members who had requested a copy for review before the meeting, according to auditors.
Hamilton, Morris and Jones sued, arguing that the vote to approve the buyout was illegal because Texas Education Code states a board member who approves an expenditure in excess of an item appropriated in the budget commits a Class C misdemeanor.
Dallas County Judge Tonya Parker ruled last May that the buyout was null and void.
Meanwhile, the new board majority voted to rescind the severance package and terminate Granger’s contract. He has since sued the district over the unpaid buyout.
“Before Dr. Granger’s claims have even been heard by the Court, the District has retaliated outside the litigation with an entirely Board-driven and self-serving ‘audit’ riddled with inaccuracies and misleading statements,” Granger’s attorney Taylor said.
Auditors noted that on the day Granger was supposed to return his electronic devices to the district, the former superintendent reported his district laptop stolen. Then a few months later, he returned his district cell phone, but the data was entirely removed.
TEA officials have been investigating the district for more than a year after the turbulent departure but have not yet released any investigative findings. The agency did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.
Trustees heralded the release of the forensic audit report summaries as a step toward transparency in the district.
Releasing the document will help win the public’s trust, trustee Kendall Smith said.
“I believe that through this particular document — this process that we’ve gone through — we’ve been able to see and uncover things that were occurring that we weren’t aware of,” Jones said.
It’s not clear yet how Lancaster officials will respond to the audit’s findings. But new Superintendent A. Katrise Perera pledged that the report would be “addressed by the administration.”
Source: Dallas Morning News