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Cabrera’s chief of staff also involved in online school venture, records show

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Juan Cabrera wasn’t the only El Paso Independent School District employee to help former school board president Dori Fenenbock launch an online school last year. She also turned to José López, the superintendent’s chief of staff, to help get eSchool Prep off the ground.

EPISD employees are allowed to do consulting work for other schools, but district policy requires that any consulting work done “for another education institution” during work hours must be approved by the superintendent at the request of the institution.

Jose López

Neither eSchool Prep nor the Texarkana Independent School District submitted requests to have López consult for them, according to documents obtained by El Paso Matters. eSchool Prep is affiliated with the Texarkana ISD, which is one of a handful of Texas districts licensed to operate online schools.

EPISD was unable to produce any documents in response to an El Paso Matters records request for “all employee consulting requests and applications Cabrera received from education institutions as of Jan 1. 2018.” Similarly, EPISD had no documents when asked for consulting requests and applications Cabrera approved during the same timeframe.

Cabrera resigned as superintendent on Nov. 5 in the wake of being sued in San Diego Superior Court in September for $5 million he and Fenenbock allegedly defrauded eSchool Prep investors of in 2019. His resignation is effective in February and he’s been on paid leave since Nov. 9.

Fenenbock’s tenure on the school board ended in August 2017, when she resigned to run for Congress.

López declined an interview request, but responded to questions via email. He said he didn’t know whether eSchool Prep or the Texarkana district submitted consulting requests on his behalf.

EPISD employees can serve as a consultant up to five duty days each school year, according to district policy. It is unclear how long López consulted for Fenenbock’s online school company, and whether his involvement was within the allowed time frame.

“I do not recall the number of hours, but from what I recall the work I completed included contract comparisons and some documentation,” López wrote in response to El Paso Matters questions.

Records show consulting work occurred in summer 2019

López attended a four-hour planning meeting between the eSchool Prep team and the Texarkana Independent School District on June 26, 2019, and a six-hour meeting on July 30, 2019, according to meeting agendas El Paso Matters obtained. Cabrera also attended the July meeting, which took place 12 days prior to the start of the 2019-20 EPISD school year. Those meetings took place virtually, said Texarkana spokesperson Tina Veal-Gooch.

López was assigned the role of the note taker, according to the agendas. The June 26 agenda notes López, along with a Texarkana employee, were responsible for state-required data about finances, personnel, student demographics and attendance and course completion.

At the July meeting, López was assigned to retrieve enrollment information from K12, a for-profit company that operates online schools nationwide. eSchool Prep uses K12 curriculum and online education programs.

López, who used an eSchool Prep company email to communicate with Texarkana ISD about the online school, was looped into emails until at least Aug. 28, 2019, according to emails Texarkana produced in response to an open records request. 

Prior to Cabrera naming him chief of staff in May 2016, López was executive director of strategy and accountability and developed student enrollment projections. He has worked at EPISD since January 2009, according to his LinkedIn profile.

Asked why Fenenbock sought his consulting assistance for eSchool Prep, López wrote that he did “not want to speculate” why she did so.

López said that he has not consulted for other educational institutions during his employment with EPISD.

Teacher’s union president calls for López’s resignation

Ross Moore, president of the El Paso chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, took to Facebook Nov. 7 to call on López to resign after El Paso Matters revealed López’s involvement with Fenenbock’s school in an Oct. 30 article.That article noted that López communicated with Texarkana administrators about the eSchool Prep during school days. 

“He (López) was using his official position for personal and professional gain,” Moore told El Paso Matters. “If that was enough for Mr. Cabrera to resign, and whatever else they had going on, I’m publicly asking him to resign. He has not been good for the district and this is the final shot.”

Asked whether he believed it was appropriate for him to email about eSchool Prep business during EPISD work hours, López wrote the following response: “I do not recall when emails were sent, but nothing was done that would have interfered with my work duties. I am available to the Superintendent, Leadership and Board of Trustees 24/7.”

Chief Communications Officer Melissa Martinez said she did not have access to López’s salary and directed El Paso Matters to submit a public information request. The chief of staff earns between $122,176 and $175,814 annually, according to EPISD’s administrator salary schedule for the 2020-21 school year.

López has not responded to a follow up interview question asking whether he was paid for this consulting work. EPISD policy allows employees to be paid for consulting if the work is approved in accordance with district policy.

Cabrera has maintained he was strictly an unpaid advisor to eSchool Prep, though the civil lawsuit filed in September alleges Cabrera has a financial stake in Fenenbock’s online school.

Cabrera’s contract allowed him to accept paid consulting offers, so long as he received board approval.

López’s consulting work reviewed by EPISD auditor

Trustee Josh Acevedo said he became aware of López’s involvement in Fenebock’s online school when he requested emails between Texarkana and eSchool staff, after learning about Cabrera’s work with the school last fall from an El Paso Times story. He shared those emails with the Board of Trustees on Dec. 17, 2019, during a closed door meeting, he said.

“I thought that it was a big conflict of interest, and it needed to be investigated by the board,” Acevedo said. “I did this over a year ago and while I can’t discuss what happened in closed session, we’re here a year later.”

Board Vice President Al Velarde told El Paso Matters last month that trustees tasked their internal auditor with conducting an audit in relation to Cabrera’s involvement with eSchool Prep.

López was also named in that audit, according to a letter EPISD’s attorney Anthony Safi sent the Texas Attorney General’s office seeking an opinion as to whether the district could withhold the audit from El Paso Matters.

Though the audit has been complete since January, as of October, the entire board had yet to review it, Velarde said.

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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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