COLLEGE PLACE — With the contract he signed Monday night to lead the College Place School District, James Fry hopes to begin a process of healing in the district’s public schools.

Fry was chosen unanimously by the School Board’s five members last week to take over the reins from Tim Payne, who is leaving after 18 years in College Place to go to Ephrata, Wash., as head of the school district there.

Currently assistant superintendent for the Clarkston, Wash., School District, Fry is a Pullman native. He returned to that area in the summer of 2012 after working as Canutillo (Texas) High School’s principal.

Fry was hired for the Clarkston School District by then-Superintendent Darcy Weisner.

Weisner, former principal of Walla Walla High School, is now superintendent of Educational Service District 123 in Pasco, and helped College Place conduct the search to replace Payne.

When Fry resigned from the Canutillo Independent School District to move back to Washington in June 2012, he didn’t know his career would belatedly undergo its biggest challenge to date, he said.

In December of that year an audit of Fry’s Texas boss, Superintendent Damon Murphy, alleged Murphy had directed Fry to lower the numbers of limited-English speakers — who generally earn lower test scores ­— in the high school’s sophomore class and to research methods on how students could receive accelerated credit during the beginning of their 10th-grade year.

That allowed those students to be reclassified as 11th-graders at the end of the first semester, thereby avoiding

the 10th-grade state standardized testing period in the spring, according to a 2012 article from the Lewiston Tribune that examined Fry’s involvement when he director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for the Clarkston School District.

The Texas Education Agency said that by manipulating numbers the school could avoid sanctions such as providing tutors for failing students or transferring students to other area schools, reported the CBS affiliate in Lewiston.

There were no charges or findings from the internal audit attached to Fry in the end, according to media reports. In December of 2012, Murphy resigned from the Canutillo post.

In 2017, he pleaded guilty after a five-year investigation by the FBI to one count of conspiracy to defraud the federal government for his role in the El Paso Independent School District’s cheating scheme, the El Paso Times newspaper reported.

Murphy worked in El Paso as an associate superintendent before coming to Canutillo; many of the allegations outlined in his plea agreement were first reported by El Paso Times in 2012.

Murphy was the fifth person to plead guilty in El Paso’s districtwide cheating scheme, which falsely inflated standardized test scores and denied students a proper education, wrote Lindsay Anderson for that newspaper.

Fry, 46, said since 2012 his own career has been tainted by Murphy’s actions.

“I know the stench of Damon Murphy and it has stained my professional path, but it’s not me. I choose to let my 22 years of work for kids and with kids speak for me.” he said.

On Friday the CPPS school board members issued a statement echoing Fry’s words, adding the Texas Education Agency officially removed the investigative notice from Fry’s certification in November 2014.

In 2015 Fry was recertified as a Washington educator and investigated by state officials, who found no violation of professional conduct or law, said CPPS spokeswoman Heidi Wells.

“I haven’t really spoken about it publicly,” Fry said Friday. “It was defending myself against a ghost. They never found anything I did wrong and so that was it. It’s been six years.”

Weisner brought up Fry’s background to College Place school officials in April when the Clarkston principal was identified as one of the top superintendent candidates, Wells said, adding that Fry’s references described him as loyal, hardworking and tirelessly serving in the communities where he’s been employed.

College Place School Board Chairman Brian Maiden said in a prepared statement Fry was forthright with the board about the challenges he’s faced in his career. Fry has large and small district experience and was the most experienced and prepared candidate for the superintendent job, Maiden said.

Fry said his work has included teaching in inner city high schools with high diversity and high challenges.

“That is my sweet spot. I want to be in a place where we can get over some obstacles,” he said.

As hard as Murphy’s illegal actions have been for Fry’s career, they were harder for the Canutillo students he’d worked with, Fry said last week.

“In Canutillo we were very thoughtful. We followed the direction of our district. … Our goal is always about getting kids across the stage to get that piece of paper that affects their whole life,” he said.

His former Texas school district is about 95 percent Latino students, and he is “extremely proud” of the relationships he and his staff formed with those students and families, Fry said.

“The barriers we were able to eliminate is one of my proudest moments,” he said.

Fry said he realizes that like in his own life, there have been struggles in College Place, particularly at College Place High School.

In addition to a lack of good communication, there appear to be some problems in accepting differences in the student population, he said.

“They are going through some interesting transitions culturally in that high school I don’t think they foresaw,” Fry said.

After moving his wife of 21 years and their four sons to College Place, his first priority on July 1 will be triage, Fry said.

“Job No. 1 is culture and wellness above all else. I’m not worried so much about how we’re doing things — the first thing is how people are feeling and how we are doing in the system,” he said.

Fry said he plans to reach out to the College Place community, including families and city officials, to get a wider perspective of the district overall to better inform his direction.

“I know there is pain there. I had a lady follow me out of the public forum, and she was passionate about changing the culture of the district,” he said.

The goal is to wipe the slate clean and start fresh, Fry said.

“Every day after this when I get to work with this community, we get to grow and celebrate, I know we can give hope to some of those people who are hurting,” he said.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers health, social services and city government in Milton-Freewater, Athena and Weston in the Walla Walla Valley.