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Lawsuit spurs EPISD board to take possible action against superintendent, discuss audit

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The El Paso Independent School District Board of Trustees will weigh Friday whether to seek an independent investigation into the superintendent’s work with the former board president’s virtual school venture.

Friday’s special board meeting comes two weeks after trustees learned that a California civil lawsuit accuses Superintendent Juan Cabrera and former board President Dori Fenenbock of defrauding investors in the online school she launched in August 2019.

Juan Cabrera

This isn’t the first time trustees have faced questions over Cabrera’s involvement with eSchool Prep, which first came to light in October 2019 when the El Paso Times obtained emails from Cabrera that indicated he was deeply involved with the virtual school.

The board received an internal audit report of Cabrera’s activities with eSchool Prep months ago, board Vice President Al Velarde revealed, but has not formally reviewed it or made it public.

This time the board is moving more quickly to get answers to the questions the lawsuit raises.

Fenenbock and Cabrera have not responded to requests for comment. In an email sent to friends Saturday, Fenenbock denied defrauding investors and said Cabrera “has no ownership” in her business and is an unpaid advisor.

Her email did not address the lawsuit’s allegation that Cabrera represented to investors he would resign from EPISD to devote himself fully to eSchool Prep.

Board President Bob Geske declined an interview request to discuss Friday’s meeting. He directed comments to Velarde and Trustee Freddy Klayel-Avalos because they called for the special meeting. 

“I’m asking for the meeting because I think it’s important that the board have an opportunity to come together to be able to discuss this (lawsuit) and understand what it is that we’re facing, and then to determine what we need to do moving forward to be able to understand what’s happening here and why Mr. Cabrera is involved in a lawsuit,” Velarde said.

Friday’s meeting agenda is open-ended enough that trustees could decide to pursue a range of actions, including, as the agenda states, “seeking an independent inquiry into the superintendent’s roles and responsibilities” with Fenenbock and her companies.

Klayel-Avalos said the board should have taken a harder look at the extent of Cabrera’s involvement in the online school last fall. He and Trustee Josh Acevedo sought to have Geske place an item on the Oct. 15, 2019, board meeting agenda to allow trustees to consult with their attorney about whether Cabrera’s consulting “posed a conflict of interest to his duty as Superintendent,” according to an email Acevedo shared with El Paso Matters. 

Cabrera’s 2017 amended contract stipulates that consulting cannot “interfere with the performance of his duties as superintendent.” He must use vacation days and pay for any consulting-related travel.

Dori Fenenbock

The Texas Education Code also requires superintendents to get board approval to do paid consulting.

It wasn’t until December 2019 that Geske agreed to put any discussion of Cabrera’s consulting work on a board meeting agenda, Acevedo said. 

Trustees discussed Cabrera’s duties with their attorney on Dec. 17, according to the meeting agenda. The discussion was closed to the public. No action was taken when the board returned to open session, though Velarde confirmed that trustees tasked internal auditor Mayra Martinez with conducting an audit.

Velarde said he couldn’t speak about the specifics of the audit since it “is still considered confidential,” but said it was in relation to Cabrera’s involvement with eSchool Prep.

Velarde, who chairs the board’s audit committee, wouldn’t say whether he has read the audit, only that “it has not been presented to anybody.”

Though he wouldn’t comment on the auditor’s findings, in an interview with El Paso Inc. last week, he said, “we conducted an audit and were not able to ascertain that he (Cabrera) had gone beyond his contract.”

The audit will not be finalized, and made public, until the seven-member board comes together and reviews it, Velarde said. The board “will soon meet” to do this, he added; whether that could happen Friday is unknown.

Asked why the board is only now reviewing the audit, months after it was finished, Velarde said the coronavirus pandemic has made it impossible for trustees to meet in person.

Joe Larsen, a Houston-based first amendment lawyer and Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas board member, said it “appears the school board is playing games.”

“They’ve got an audit and told the public what it says, but they can’t show the public until they’ve officially approved it,” Larsen said. “They’re playing games and they’re keeping the public in the dark and they need to step up to the bar, release this public information and deal with the facts. That’s the way the government is supposed to operate.”

Friday’s meeting will be held via Zoom. Since March, trustees have met virtually more than 20 times for regular and special board meetings using the video conferencing software. Asked why the audit hasn’t been discussed virtually, Velarde said the board’s focus has been on how to safely reopen classrooms.

“On my part, I have to admit that my focus has been really how we’re going to get kids back to the school,” Velarde said.

Acevedo expressed frustration that the board didn’t engage in “more of a discussion and (take) action” last fall when they learned about eSchool Prep. He believes the lawsuit was the impetus for more trustees being willing to pursue possible action against Cabrera.

“More board members are (now) willing to investigate because (the lawsuit) has to do with allegations of fraud, which although he was sued as an independent entity, as a person, it reflects on the district,” Klayel-Avalos said.

“We expect our employee to focus on the district and we expect our employee to have his hands clean of corruption and that reflects on the entire district and the community itself, which is why it’s very important to find out what’s happening.”

The lawsuit is a civil action; Cabrera and Fenenbock have not been accused of any criminal action.

Trustee Daniel Call said now is the appropriate time for the board to look more closely at Cabrera’s ties with Fenenbock’s venture.

“I try to go off facts. And I didn’t have facts then (last year). And I still don’t have the facts today but I have more facts today then I did then,” Call said.

Trustee Chuck Taylor said he couldn’t comment on Friday’s meeting because he didn’t have knowledge of the lawsuit or the virtual school. Trustee Diane Dye did not respond to a call for comment left to her cell phone.

The El Paso Independent School District administration building. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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Molly Smith

Molly Smith has been a reporter for the El Paso Times and The (McAllen) Monitor. She’s covered education, criminal justice and local government. A Seattle native, she’s lived in Texas since 2014, with stops in Austin, the Rio Grande Valley and now El Paso. She can be reached at mksmith@elpasomatters.org or 915-247-8857.

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