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EPISD audit appears to focus on contracts supported by ex-Superintendent Cabrera

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Updated at 9:55 p.m. May 12 with information from Wednesday’s board meeting:

The El Paso Independent School District Board of Trustees directed their internal auditor Wednesday to investigate other district contracts after “concerns” came up during a separate internal audit of academic services contracts undertaken by the former superintendent.

That decision came after trustees spent nearly four hours in a closed session discussing legal issues related to the audit, which has yet to be finalized and made public. There was no mention of when Chief Internal Auditor Mayra Martinez must complete the new audit into other contracts.

“We’re asking for an additional audit to look into other contracts,” Trustee Al Velarde said. Velarde, the most senior board member, is serving as acting board president.

Velarde said he expects Martinez to come back with a revised audit plan, and timeline for the new audit, at the June board meeting.

Audits are typically not released to the public until an accompanying corrective action plan is completed. District staff has 10 days to complete that plan, Velarde said, and then trustees have five days to review the final audit.

“We’re doing our best to get it out as quickly as possible,” he said of the initial audit into contracts enacted under former Superintendent Juan Cabrera.

The original story is below:

The El Paso Independent School District’s Board of Trustees is scheduled to discuss an internal audit Wednesday that likely will shed more light on controversial contracts championed by the former superintendent, according to comments members made Tuesday. 

Juan Cabrera

The EPISD board on Tuesday voted to postpone approving three academic contracts related to programming and training, after some members cited the audit as the reason for the delay.

The board voted 4-2 to postpone a nearly $110,000 contract renewal with Renaissance K-12 Educational Software Systems for an elementary school reading program. Trustees Josh Acevedo, Daniel Call, Freddy Klayel-Avalos and Al Velarde voted to postpone while Diane Dye and Bob Geske voted against it. Trustee Chuck Taylor was absent.

“I don’t feel comfortable, in my opinion, moving forward with Renaissance at this point … until we have more information about what that audit is going to be …” Acevedo said.

Klayel-Avalos described Renaissance as “a little controversial right now.”

The board did not approve a nearly $111,700 contract with NoRedInk Corp. and postponed a decision on a nearly $167,000 Ellevation, Inc. contract, with some again citing the audit as a factor in their decision.

“This is very challenging in light of what we’re going to be moving with tomorrow,” Velarde said.

Questions over $1.1 million Engage2Learn transfer

Trustees were also unanimous in their decision to postpone approving a nearly $1.8 million budget transfer to pay for a $1.1 million Engage Learning Inc. contract administrators agreed to in September 2020. More commonly known as Engage2Learn, the company trains teachers on active learning strategies. The same item was postponed April 20. 

Trustees first learned of that contract in April when Deputy Superintendent of Finance and Operations Carmen Arrieta-Candelaria sought their approval to move unused money budgeted for salaries to cover a shortfall in funds allocated for staff training. Trustees were not explicitly told what the transfer would cover, which led Acevedo and Velarde to question whether it was for Engage2Learn.

The Engage2Learn contract was paid for out of a $10 million “bucket” — or a broad spending category — trustees previously approved for pandemic-related expenses. Buckets are intended to make it easier for administrators to purchase bulk routine supplies from pre-approved vendors, but EPISD also used them for contracted academic services.

“The understanding for me here is that what we’ve done is we entered into that Engage2Learn contract utilizing a bucket, therefore the board was not specifically informed at that time that that’s what the money was going to be used for,” Velarde said at the April 20 meeting.

Arrieta-Candelaria was told then to bring a more detailed transfer request to Tuesday’s meeting.

In a memo provided to trustees in advance of Tuesday’s meeting, she wrote that “a request was made by the former superintendent (Juan Cabrera) through the former chief of staff (José Lopez) to use the local COVID funds” to train teachers on virtual learning. Chief Academic Officer Tamekia Brown supported the contracted services, the memo noted.

Arrieta-Candelaria and Brown were placed on paid leave Monday. The reason for that action is unclear. Neither administrator has responded to requests for comment sent to their work emails.

Tamekia Brown, left, and Carmen Arrieta-Candelaria have been placed on paid leave by the El Paso Independent School District.

The memo also references the internal audit. Martha Aguirre, executive director of the Budget and External Finance Office, told trustees that internal audit staff met with her last week “to discuss the areas that they identified as concerning, which would be this budget transfer.”

Links to the former superintendent

Cabrera introduced Renaissance’s reading program and Engage2Learn when he took over the district in 2013.

He resigned in November 2020 after being sued for fraud in California state court. The fraud allegations stem from his consulting work with eSchool Prep, the virtual school former EPISD board President Dori Fenenbock launched in 2019.

In addition to eSchool Prep, Cabrera was also working with Public School Partners, or PSP, an education nonprofit. He served as chair of the PSP board of directors while he was employed by EPISD.

In April 2020, Cabrera entered into a three-year agreement with the Benavides Independent School District for PSP to run its secondary school, according to documents obtained by El Paso Matters. Benavides is about halfway between Laredo and Corpus Christi, hundreds of miles from El Paso.

Trustees first learned about Public School Partners around the time of his resignation, according to previous interviews with El Paso Matters.

Lopez, Cabrera’s chief of staff, was also involved in eSchool Prep and PSP, according to emails. Lopez resigned from EPISD in December 2020

Cabrera has not responded to multiple interview requests from El Paso Matter since resigning.

The PSP board also agreed to contract with Renaissance and Engage2Learn to provide services to Benavides ISD, according to board meeting notes obtained by El Paso Matters through Texas open records laws.

Audit discussed Wednesday

The audit discussion Wednesday will take place behind closed doors, though trustees may decide to take action afterward “if needed,” according to the meeting agenda.

Final audit reports are released to the public, but it’s not clear when this audit will be completed. 

An internal audit in 2018 found “indicators of vendor favoritism, insider information and bid tailoring” in a bond oversight contract pushed by Cabrera. Although the contract award process created “the appearance the pre-solicitation and evaluation phases were not conducted in a transparent, ethical, and/or impartial manner,” the audit found that no policies were violated.

During public comment Tuesday, Ross Moore, president of the El Paso chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said Monday’s action to place Arrieta-Candelaria and Brown on leave “was one of many bodies in the lake that are starting to surface.”

The new board’s job, he said, would be “dealing with the ethical, legal, programmatic and educational problems created by Cabrera and his family of miscreants.”

Newly elected trustees Leah Hanany and Isabel Hernandez were sworn in Wednesday morning, hours before the audit meeting, replacing Geske and Dye. They were elected on May 1.

The runoff election for Taylor’s seat is June 5. He will continue serving on the board until the results from that election are canvassed.

Disclosure: Carmen Arrieta-Candelaria is an El Paso Matters donor.

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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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