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Internal audit reveals EPISD superintendent ‘conflict of interest’

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9:55 a.m., Friday, May 28: This story has been updated with comment from former Superintendent Juan Cabrera.

An internal audit released Thursday found “an appearance of conflict of interest” between former El Paso Independent School District Superintendent Juan Cabrera and two academic service vendors he championed during his tenure.

Juan Cabrera

The audit focused on 10 academic services contracts totaling $3.49 million issued during the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years that were categorized as “miscellaneous.” Of those, five contracts totaling $1.89 million lacked documentation showing that EPISD staff had identified the need, justification and “appropriate stakeholder input” for obtaining the service. Six were missing “utilization data” showing whether the services were being used as expected.

Two of those five included vendors with whom Cabrera has “close social/professional relationships,” the audit notes — Renaissance K-12 Educational Software Systems and Engage Learning Inc., more commonly known as Engage2Learn.

And two of the contracts — with Engage2Learn and Con Mi Madre, totaling almost $1.3 million — met the federal government’s definition of waste because district staff could provide similar services themselves. The Government Accounting Office defines waste as “the act of using or expending resources carelessly, extravagantly, or to no purpose,” the audit report notes.

In response to emailed questions from El Paso Matters, Cabrera criticized the audit findings.

“During the pandemic we were struggling to provide services to our students virtually. Just like every other district in America we bought and focused on digital service providers and focused on existing vendors. All of the vendors mentioned in the audit were existing vendors. It’s disingenuous to only analyze our relationship with these vendors in a vacuum during the pandemic. Many of these vendors have a long history with the district,” he said.

After seven years at the district’s helm, Cabrera resigned in early November 2020, three weeks after news broke he was sued for fraud in connection with a California charter school scheme. That civil lawsuit is pending.

The audit was part of Chief Internal Auditor Mayra Martinez’s regularly planned audits for the 2020-21 school year.

Staff resistance to contract

The audit also found Cabrera directed staff to acquire additional services from Renaissance, Engage2Learn and Con Mi Madre for a total of $2.3 million without doing a needs assessment, business justification or obtaining stakeholder input. Those contracts weren’t part of the audit review.

Though EPISD policy doesn’t prohibit a superintendent from doing this, “the former Superintendent’s actions do not align with the public sector’s best practices of strategic planning and transparency,” the audit report reads.

Tamekia Brown

Chief Academic Officer Tamekia Brown did not support Cabrera’s push to use Renaissance instead of a vendor called Istation, a change made six days before a school board meeting and two months before the start of the 2020-21 school year, the audit notes. She called it “a forced buy,” and told the auditor the Academics Department had to “revise both the goals and infrastructure” as a result of the change.

Brown has been on paid administrative leave since May 11 pending review of her employment status, according to a letter Patricia Cortez, assistant superintendent of human resources, issued on May 10.

Cabrera, who was interviewed for the audit, said he pushed through contracts because of staff resistance.

“The academics team from 2013 to 2020 at the district did not support any of my major initiatives including Engage2Learn, active learning, project-based learning, New Tech Network or Renaissance,” he stated. “They all literally fought me at every turn, as did (union representatives,) and if I had listened to them we would not be the highest performing urban district in Texas and one of the highest performing in the country. Everyone (sic) of those ideas was mine and I stand behind them 100% today no regrets.”

He further told the auditor his selection of Renaissance for a contract was justified.

“I consider myself the most knowledgeable person in the district and quite honestly one of the most knowledgeable in the country on this topic,” he said. 

Carla Gonzales, the associate superintendent of academics and school leadership, also told the auditor that concerns had been raised two years prior about the effectiveness of Con Mi Madre, noting, “it was a favored program from (former Superintendent), even though it was not the best use of funds.”

Deputy Superintendent of Finance and Operations Carmen Arrieta-Candelaria, who was put on leave the same day as Brown, told the auditor “when you are directed to do something regarding a service, because the Superintendent feels that it’s going to make a difference, he’s going to get it continued or deleted.”

Arrieta-Candelaria hasn’t responded to a request for comment on the audit from El Paso Matters. Brown couldn’t be reached for comment.

District spokesperson Melissa Martinez said Wednesday the two administrators remain on leave.

Finding money for a contract

The audit found that the district did not budget for a separate, $1.08 million contract with Engage2Learn. It is unclear from the audit who pushed for that contract, but the audit notes the school board did not explicitly approve the agreement because the funding was taken out of a $4 million “bucket” trustees approved in 2019.

Buckets are large preset amounts of funds allocated for specific purposes, in this case academic services. However, it appears those funds were no longer available.

Carmen Arrieta-Candelaria

That prompted administrators to transfer money from a federal COVID-19 relief fund, even though Arrieta-Candelaria had previously said that tapping that money for Engage2Learn wasn’t permissible because the company helped shape the scope of work for the contract.

Arrieta-Candelaria told the auditors that Cabrera’s chief of staff, Jose López, verbally confirmed the Engage2Learn contract was for direct training due to the coronavirus pandemic.

López resigned from EPISD in December 2020.

The board had only approved using federal stimulus money for pandemic-related expenses tied to “instructional technology” and personal protective equipment, not curriculum and instruction expenditures. As a result, Arrieta-Candelaria in April attempted to get the school board to approve a budget transfer so unused curriculum funds would cover the purchase.

The school board blocked that transfer this month after being made aware of the audit findings.

Cabrera’s “appearance of conflict of interest”

The audit found “an appearance of conflict of interest” between Cabrera and Renaissance and Engage2Learn “due to close social/professional relationships.” Since Aug. 1, 2019, EPISD has entered into $2.9 million worth of contracts with Engage2Learn and $2.8 with Renaissance, the audit notes.

In the email interview with El Paso Matters, Cabrera said he had “ZERO” financial ties to Engage2Learn or Renaissance. “I have never received any financial benefits from either of these organizations at any time prior, during or after my employment with the district,” he said.

Cabrera told the auditor he had both a professional and social relationship with Renaissance’s senior strategic field account executive who was EPISD’s main company contact. That person, who is unnamed in the audit, is married to a board member on Public School Partners, a nonprofit Cabrera founded and of which he serves as board chair, the audit notes.

Emilio Zamora, whose LinkedIn profile lists him as strategic account manager for Renaissance,  is married to Martha Salazar-Zamora, Public School Partner’s board vice chair, who is also superintendent of the Tomball Independent School District in Southeast Texas.

Public School Partners entered into a contract with Renaissance in May 2020 as part of an in-district charter arrangement the nonprofit has with the Benavides Independent School District, according to documents El Paso Matters obtained via Texas open records laws. Public School Partners’ executive director communicated directly with Zamora about teacher training programs, according to emails received as part of the open records request.

Per the audit, Zamora and Cabrera met in college. Cabrera told the auditor he has professional and social relationships “with many individuals in school districts and individuals who serve as vendors to school districts.” 

“I believe it’s important to build relationships with individuals who have knowledge about innovative methodology used to improve student outcomes and thus I seek out these relationships,” he said. 

EPISD staff told the auditor Cabrera was particularly interested in Engage2Learn spending.

Carla Gonzales

Gonzales, the associate superintendent of academics and school leadership, told the auditor: “The attitude of the prior leadership was that if it is an E2L connection, EPISD should pursue it.”

Brown said Cabrera would inquire how much EPISD was spending on Engage2Learn. He asked “what can we do to get them to give us services,” rather than “what do teachers need,” the report notes Brown saying.

Cabrera’s relationship with the company is unclear, though the report states that he canceled a presentation scheduled during a national conference in October 2020. That came after the organizers told him “corporate partners may not serve as presenters,” according to the audit.

Public School Partners also entered into a contract with Engage2Learn last May. 

“The proximity of these events, along with the statements provided by Academics regarding the actions of the former Superintendent, creates an appearance of favoritism for these two vendors,” the audit report says.

This is not the first audit that raised questions of Cabrera’s involvement in contracts. A 2018 internal audit found “indicators of vendor favoritism, insider information and bid tailoring” in a bond oversight contract Cabrera pushed. Although the contract award process was “not conducted in a transparent, ethical and/or impartial manner,” that audit found no policy violations.

The current audit recommends that Interim Superintendent Vince Sheffield “reiterate the fiduciary relationship” administrators have with the district. That includes “being good stewards of public funds.”

And, as part of their annual confirmation of receipt of the employee handbook, administrators are required “to report and prevent losses due to waste, fraud, or unethical acts.”

Another recommendation includes doing an abbreviated business analysis of the 10 audited contracts, which include Renaissance and Engage2Learn, prior to the start of fiscal year 2022 on Aug. 1. Such an analysis helps organizations “scrutinize proposed solutions/initiatives before committing resources, time and taxpayer monies,” the report states.

Cover photo: Juan Cabrera, then superintendent of El Paso Independent School District, spoke at the EPISD teacher of the year gala in 2019. (Photo courtesy of El Paso Independent School District)

Disclosure: Carmen Arrieta-Candelaria is a financial supporter of El Paso Matters.
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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