The El Paso Independent School District Board of Trustees narrowly voted Friday to authorize their outside legal counsel “to follow up on” a nearly three-hour discussion behind closed doors “in consultation” with board Vice President Al Velarde about a civil lawsuit accusing their superintendent of fraud.
The board’s next steps — and the future of Superintendent Juan Cabrera — weren’t clear at the end of the meeting. Board members didn’t detail their closed-door discussions when they returned to open session, or in later interviews with El Paso Matters.
The board also called for a Nov. 5 meeting. The agenda, indicating what actions the board is considering, has yet to be posted.
The board did not call Friday for an independent investigation into Cabrera’s work with the virtual school at the center of the lawsuit, a possible action listed on the meeting agenda.
The lawsuit filed in San Diego County Superior County in September accuses Cabrera and former EPISD board President Dori Fenenbock of engaging in fraud in a California investment deal for her online school. It alleges Cabrera has a financial stake in the school and represented to investors he would resign from EPISD to devote himself fully to the venture.
The Texas-based school, eSchool Prep, opened in August 2019 and enrolls students in grades 5-12. It is affiliated with the Texarkana Independent School District.
Velarde and trustees Josh Acevedo, Daniel Call and Freddy Klayel-Avalos voted in favor of their attorney following up on the discussion held in executive session.
Trustees Diane Dye, Bob Geske and Chuck Taylor voted against it.
There was no discussion prior to the vote, though Dye sought to make a comment afterwards. Cezy Collins, EPISD’s legal counsel, said Dye shouldn’t do so because she’d already voted.
Dye told El Paso Matters she had wanted to clarify her vote.
“The lawsuit is just a set of allegations and it is not about the EPISD,” she said, adding, “it’s pending litigation and it has no bearing on the EPISD, and we have no proof of wrongdoing or anything like that.”
Cabrera and Fenenbock have not returned multiple requests for comment. Fenenbock emailed friends and family Saturday to dispute the fraud allegations and said Cabrera has no ownership in her company and is an unpaid advisor.
When the El Paso Times first reported about Cabrera consulting for Fenenbock’s virtual school company last October, Cabrera, through a district spokesperson, said he wasn’t being paid for his consulting and was using personal time.
The Times obtained email threads that revealed Cabrera communicated about eSchool Prep during regular business hours on school days. Cabrera and his Chief of Staff Jose Lopez, on July 30, 2019 — 12 days before EPISD began the 2019-20 school year — participated in a six-hour long virtual eSchool Prep planning meeting.
Lopez, whose LinkedIn lists him as being employed by EPISD since 2009, had a company email, as did Cabrera.
The civil lawsuit states that Cabrera and Fenenbock met with the investors in Los Angeles in February 2019 about the limited liability company they would form to operate the school.
A quarterly superintendent travel report trustees received in April 2019 shows Cabrera traveled to Los Angeles from Feb. 14-16, 2019 for the The School Superintendents Association’s 2019 National Conference on Education. He did not submit any travel-related expenses for payment.
On Feb. 14, 2019, Austin-based lawyer Rudy Colmenero, Cabrera’s former law partner, registered eSchool Texas LLC, according to Texas Secretary of State records. That same day, Colmenero registered Virtual Education Services LLC with the state. Both companies are listed as defendants in the civil suit, along with Fenenbock and Cabrera.
Cabrera was in Austin for the Texas School Alliance Meeting and a meeting with the Texas Education Agency from Feb. 13-14, 2019, according to the quarterly travel report. That trip cost the district about $1,000.
Cabrera’s contract allows him to do consulting as long as it does not “interfere with the performance of his duties as superintendent.” He must take vacation time and pay for any consulting-related travel.
Though he is not required to disclose unpaid consulting work to trustees, the board must approve all paid work, per state law.
Cabrera has served as superintendent since 2013. EPISD’s state-appointed board of managers hired Cabrera to lead the district through the fallout from the cheating scandal that resulted in the arrest and termination of former Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia.
The Texas Education Commissioner removed EPISD’s elected board from power in 2012 for insufficiently overseeing Garcia.
Cabrera’s tenure has not been without controversy. In 2017, an internal audit — the result of an El Paso Times investigation — found indicators associated with vendor favoritism and bid tailoring related to a contract with Gafcon, a San Diego-based construction management company hired to oversee the 2016 million bond. The newspaper’s reporting found Cabrera helped craft the company’s winning bid.
Cabrera and Fenenbock also received scrutiny for the frequency at which they traveled together during her two-year tenure on the board from 2015 to 2017. Cabrera had to repay the district for travel costs associated with a 2017 trip with Fenenbock to an American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference that had no educational purpose.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect that the July 30, 2019 planning meeting Cabrera and Lopez participated in took place virtually and did not require their travel to Texarkana ISD.
Cover photo: The El Paso Independent School District administration building. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)