As parents in Prosper Independent School District await the results of an “independent investigation” into a sex abuse scandal and cover-up by district administrators, Prosper ISD Superintendent Holly Ferguson is job hunting.
Many Prosper parents have been calling for Ferguson to resign or be fired since the scandal broke in late August.
That’s when a lawsuit exposed how Ferguson’s administration had failed to protect students from a bus driver accused of sexually abusing two little girls for almost an entire school year—even though the abuse occurred on school property and was captured on bus surveillance video.
The lawsuit also brought to light how Ferguson and other administrators had hushed up the sex abuse allegations, failing to tell parents that their students had been exposed to a child molester and warning staff to keep quiet.
Moms whose children rode the same bus as the victims only learned about the abuse from media reports about the lawsuit—more than three months after Ferguson and other district administrators had discovered what happened.
It has now been 17 weeks since Prosper ISD parents learned about the shocking sexual abuse and the district’s cover-up, and 14 weeks since trustees authorized a third-party investigation.
At the December 12 school board meeting, Prosper moms asked trustees for a progress report on the investigation. They didn’t get one.
Instead, they found out that Ferguson is job-hunting, perhaps looking to leave the district before results of the investigation become public.
Ferguson interviewed on December 10 for a superintendent position in Northwest ISD, located north of Fort Worth and about an hour from Prosper. But on December 12, just prior to Prosper ISD’s board meeting, Northwest ISD trustees announced they had chosen Kerrville ISD superintendent Mark Foust as their lone finalist for the job.
Whether Ferguson eventually quits, is fired, or remains in Prosper for the duration of her five-year contract, parents want accountability for both the sexual assault of students by a district employee and the cover-up of the abuse by the district’s administration.
They don’t want to see another Prosper ISD scandal swept under the rug.
The Sexual Abuse
According to the lawsuit filed by the assault victims’ family on August 25 and arrest documents from May obtained by Texas Scorecard, Prosper ISD bus driver Frank Paniagua, 61, “continuously and systematically” sexually molested two sisters, then ages 5 and 7, more than 100 times between September 2021 and May 2022.
The victims attended Rucker Elementary and are identified in the lawsuit as Janie Doe 1 and 2.
The assaults occurred while the girls were on Paniagua’s bus, which was equipped with surveillance cameras—often while the bus was dropping off students at Rucker, in plain view of school staff.
A Prosper ISD bus driver told Texas Scorecard that Paniagua had access to the bus surveillance video system and the program parents used to track the buses carrying their children.
The girls revealed the abuse to their family on May 7—the day before Mother’s Day.
The girls’ mother immediately reported the abuse to the district’s transportation director and Prosper ISD’s internal police department, leaving messages because it was a weekend.
On May 8, a Prosper ISD officer notified the Collin County Sheriff’s Office that his chief had received a report of a district employee committing indecency with a child.
On the morning of Monday, May 9, Prosper ISD police pulled surveillance video from Paniagua’s bus and reviewed it.
On Tuesday, May 10, the Janies were interviewed by the Children’s Advocacy Center of Collin County. Based on the interviews and bus video, a warrant was issued for Paniagua’s arrest.
Paniagua was arrested and booked on charges of continuous sexual abuse of a child victim under 14.
Following his arrest and booking into the Collin County jail, Paniagua reportedly attempted suicide and later died from his injuries on June 10.
The sex abuse lawsuit accuses the district of gross negligence for failing to protect the Janies.
The suit claims district employees at Rucker’s bus drop-off noticed that Janie Doe 1 was routinely kept on the bus alone with “Mr. Frank” but did nothing to intervene and said nothing to the parents.
Prosper ISD was willfully indifferent in recognizing, preventing, interceding, and responding to any suspicion of—let alone actual instances of—sexual misconduct…
Prosper ISD was deliberately silent when it had a duty to speak.
The Janies’ parents say they brought their suit for damages of at least $5 million “not only to seek redress for themselves and their girls, but to ensure that Prosper ISD stands as an example and a warning to all institutions entrusted with the care and protection of vulnerable children.”
The attorneys representing the Janies, McCathern Law, also reached out to other Prosper ISD families whose children may have been abused by Paniagua.
The Janies’ mother claims in the lawsuit that Superintendent Holly Ferguson responded to her sex abuse allegations with a “scant courtesy call” and suggested she keep quiet “so as not to attract media attention to her family or Prosper ISD staff.”
For more than three months—from May 9 to August 25—district officials said nothing about the sex abuse allegations and failed to make any known policy changes aimed at preventing similar abuse from occurring in the future.
The district’s silence about Paniagua’s arrest allowed them to escape media coverage of the scandal, and his death soon after spared the district the bad publicity of a sexual molestation trial.
As the new school year began on August 10, Prosper ISD (like many other districts) struggled to hire enough bus drivers, and parents were fuming about their students being left stranded at bus stops.
Yet rumors were already circulating that there was more to the story.
When news of the bus driver sex abuse scandal broke, Prosper ISD administrators and elected school board trustees claimed the district had taken “swift action,” which supposedly included communicating with parents.
However, contrary to the board’s official statement issued August 29, multiple moms said they were never told their children’s bus driver was accused of sexually assaulting students.
Parents whose children rode a bus driven by Paniagua in prior school years say they were never notified of the charges against him either.
Ferguson and other Prosper ISD officials, including the district’s Police Chief Chad Vessels and Transportation Director Annamarie Hamrick, had known about the abuse since May 9. Hamrick left at the end of the school year in May, moving to the same position at Garland ISD (using her married name Annamarie Banner).
Rucker Elementary School Principal Marisol Balderas was also aware of the abuse allegations. Some Rucker moms said Balderas told them there had been an “incident” on the bus but refused to provide details. One mom was informed CPS had questioned her child about the incident without her permission. Others said they were simply notified Paniagua was being replaced.
Staff members at the school say they were instructed by administrators to say nothing about the abuse allegations.
Prosper ISD’s Chief of Administrative Services Jeff Crownover, an attorney who is a member of Ferguson’s executive cabinet and until recently also served as general counsel to the board, would have been made aware of the situation and provided legal advice.
It’s unclear if any school board trustees were informed about the sex abuse scandal.
Two trustees, Jorden Dial and Garrett Linker, were elected on May 7—the day the Janies told their family about the abuse—and were sworn into office on May 16, after Paniagua’s arrest.
Linker stated publicly on September 7 that he was unaware of the sex abuse allegations until news broke about the lawsuit in August. He also openly called for a “thorough and independent investigation,” as well as “transparency and accountability,” in a public statement on August 30.
Exposure and Backlash
At the first school board meeting after news of the scandal broke, on August 29, parents and community members unleashed their outrage at district officials for failing to protect their children and for failing to be transparent with parents and the public.
Parents also described past instances of district officials sweeping scandals under the rug—ignoring or hiding problems to protect the district’s image, rather than openly addressing issues to improve the district.
Many called on Ferguson to resign or be placed on administrative leave during an investigation.
Following a 90-minute closed session with attorneys, Board President Drew Wilborn read a prepared statement on behalf of all the trustees:
Although we have confidence that Dr. Holly Ferguson and her team have handled this incident professionally and ethically, the board has retained an independent firm to investigate this matter. This investigation is ongoing.
Yet the statement was clearly untrue. Trustees had not met since the scandal broke, meaning they’d had no opportunity to vote on launching an investigation or to approve hiring an “independent firm” to conduct it.
Wilborn then called a special board meeting on September 13, so trustees could vote on the investigation he had claimed was already “ongoing.”
In reality, the investigation Wilborn had referred to as “independent” was being conducted by attorneys with Fanning Harper Martinson Brandt & Kutchin, a law firm selected (presumably by the district’s liability insurance provider) to defend the district against the sex abuse lawsuit—hardly impartial third parties.
In a 5-2 vote, trustees approved hiring law firm Thompson & Horton to “conduct an independent investigation into the district’s response to alleged inappropriate conduct by a former district employee.”
Trustees Jorden Dial and Bill Beavers voted against hiring an independent investigator.
Beavers had made a public statement on September 6 reaffirming his “complete confidence” in Ferguson.
Also at the September 13 meeting, Ferguson told the board she wanted Crownover to work exclusively as her chief of administrative services and no longer serve as general counsel to the board, prompting trustees to approve hiring their own outside counsel.
That meeting ended with parents chanting, “Fire Holly!”
But the community’s response didn’t stop there.
A group of Rucker Elementary moms organized a peaceful protest. On September 19, a few dozen parents held signs in a field across the street from the school.
Their notice announcing the protest said the district had yet to formally notify any families about the abuse allegations, and it included a detailed list of expected outcomes to prevent future abuses and promote transparency.
Despite parents informing the district of their intentions, Prosper ISD’s internal police department overreacted, coordinating with the Town of Prosper Police Department to place a sniper on the roof of a local business across from the school, overlooking the protesters.
The moms were horrified, scared, and angry when they spotted the sniper aiming toward them and their children’s school.
Prosper parents also started a “Justice for Janies” petition demanding that trustees make the findings of a comprehensive third-party investigation available to the public. The petition also asked trustees to suspend Ferguson during the course of the investigation, which they have declined to do.
Prosper ISD Pushes Back
Since September 21, when the district filed its response to the sex abuse lawsuit, Prosper ISD officials have remained tight-lipped about the scandal.
The district reportedly hired a public relations firm to help handle information requests from the community and media.
Some in the community started a public relations campaign of their own to show support for the district and Ferguson.
A few weeks after the scandal broke, “Better Together Prosper ISD” yard signs began popping up around town, even in front of schools.
According to the campaign’s website, the goal is to “spread positivity.” The site mentions one public official by name: Superintendent Holly Ferguson.
One of the Prosper ISD boosters behind the campaign is Gretchen Darby, a PR professional who joined the Town of Prosper community engagement committee in October.
In November, Darby posted pictures of herself attending a Dallas Cowboys game as a guest of box-holder McCathern Law, the firm representing the Janies’ family in their lawsuit against the district.
Another Better Together backer is Raising Cane’s executive Tommy van Wolfe. He was one of several attendees at the September 19 school board meeting wearing an “I Support Prosper ISD” sticker. Some had speculated he might run for school board, but at the December 12 board meeting, he told a parent he was not planning to run for a trustee position in May.
Frustrated parents who fear the district is once again succeeding in sweeping a scandal under the rug made their own signs that read “Prosper ISD Better Get It Together.”
Sweeping Scandals Under the Rug
One of Prosper ISD’s most notorious (and failed) efforts to sweep a scandal under the rug was the district’s 2015 attempt to cover up a student’s claim of sexual advances by a teacher’s aide.
School administrators admonished teacher Maribeth Thomas for reporting the student’s claim to the Town of Prosper police instead of to the district’s internal police department, which reports to the superintendent. Thomas held her ground and sued the district, exposing their actions.
“WE (administrators) are the PD,” one administrator was recorded telling Thomas.
Then-Prosper High School Principal Greg Wright was recorded saying, “I’m all about the team. I’m all about PR and how this high school looks.”
“That’s why we have an internal police department to take care of these serious situations,” Wright added. “You don’t ever go outside the parameters of Prosper ISD police.”
Earlier this month, Prosper ISD cheerleading coach Cameron Jones disappeared from an online staff roster after “PHS Cheer Families” received an email saying Jones “will no longer be the head cheer coach at Prosper High School.” A message sent to his district email address was returned as undelivered.
Prosper ISD’s communications department refused to even say if Jones is still employed by the district, though they eventually confirmed he is being replaced. Parents had filed grievances against Jones alleging various violations of district policies, but it’s unknown if any of those complaints contributed to his departure.
Parents have filed countless other grievances against Prosper ISD—not uncommon in Texas school districts. Few, if any, have received satisfactory results. Yet other parents have told Texas Scorecard they hesitate to complain because they fear retaliation against their children or simply don’t think it will do any good.
Many have said district officials don’t even bother to investigate their grievances and specifically cite Holly Ferguson as setting the direction for how parents’ complaints are handled.
Superintendent Holly Ferguson
Holly Ferguson has worked as a Prosper ISD administrator since 2007, including three years as principal of Rucker Elementary.
Ferguson’s current five-year contract with Prosper ISD, agreed to in January and effective July 1 of this year, pays her a base salary of $310,000 (a 20 percent increase over her previously reported salary) plus benefits.
The contract also awarded Ferguson a “performance incentive payment” of $60,000 for the 2021-22 school year—the time period during which Paniagua was charged with regularly molesting two little girls on his bus.
According to the terms of the contract, the bonus was payable in June. If Paniagua’s arrest in May had become known, the public might have questioned whether Ferguson had earned the bonus trustees had approved back in January.
During 2020-21, Ferguson’s first school year as Prosper ISD superintendent, she was paid a base salary of $260,000, according to data reported by the Texas Education Agency.
At the same time, district taxpayers were also paying former Superintendent Drew Watkins a full salary ($341,000 as of October 2019) and benefits. Watkins resigned July 31, 2020, but per the terms of his retirement agreement, he stayed on as an assistant superintendent through June 30, 2021, to “mentor and train” Ferguson.
Ultimately, the board of trustees gets to decide who will serve as superintendent and the terms of the superintendent’s contract.
The next election for school board trustees will be on May 6, 2023. Seats held by trustees Debra Smith (Place 5) and Dena Dixon (Place 2) are up for election. Candidates’ filing period is January 18 through February 17.