Juan Cabrera, second from left, and members of the El Paso Independent School District Board of Trustees opened their August 2019 meeting with the Pledge of Allegiance. (Photo courtesy of EPISD)

Juan Cabrera fired off a quick, two-line email last April, hours before the work week wrapped up.

“We are official!!!

Signed on page 22. Any other page?”

It was 2:23 p.m. MST Friday, April 24, 2020. In a few hours, the El Paso Independent School District would notify parents that a cafeteria worker at a meal distribution site had tested positive for COVID-19. A week earlier, the governor ordered districts to continue with virtual learning for the remainder of the school year to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

But at that moment, Cabrera’s attention wasn’t on the 55,000-student district he was paid more than $500,000 to oversee: it was 600 miles away in Benavides, Texas. Days earlier, he had entered into a three-year agreement with the Benavides Independent School District for Public School Partners, the nonprofit he founded — and of which he serves as board chair — to run its secondary school.

Public School Partners wasn’t Cabrera’s only side project. He was still actively involved with the Texas-based online school former EPISD board President Dori Fenenbock launched in 2019, an arrangement that ultimately led to his resignation six months later when the school board learned the two were sued for fraud in connection with a California charter school scheme.

Outside dealings defined the embattled former leader’s seven-year tenure at EPISD. 

Emails, court records and other documents obtained by El Paso Matters paint a portrait of a superintendent increasingly focused on his own ventures rather than EPISD, even as educators grappled with the greatest school crisis in generations. His bosses, the seven members of the school board, were unaware of his outside activities and did little or nothing to track them.

Cabrera’s contract gave him wide latitude to pursue outside projects. In interviews with El Paso Matters, board members said their lack of knowledge about these ventures was not a failure on their part, but the result of a flawed contract that Cabrera abused.

Cabrera negotiated a clause in his 2017 contract amendment that allowed him to serve as a board director or advisor and “participate in consulting and speaking engagements” as long as these activities did “not interfere with the performance of his duties as Superintendent, conflict in any way with the business of the District, or violate state law.”

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

In accordance with Texas law, he needed board approval to do paid consulting or advisory work. Trustees also stipulated that he use vacation days and cover travel costs associated with paid work. He was not contractually obligated to get board approval for unpaid work, let alone inform trustees of this work.

Cabrera did not make himself available for a telephone interview, though he responded to questions via email.

Dori Fenenbock

He wrote that he has “never received any financial benefit” from Public School Partners or eSchool Prep, Fenenbock’s virtual school, “at any time prior, during or after my employment at the district.” He is also not compensated as board chair of Public School Partners, he said.

Interviews with trustees reveal none knew about Public School Partners until they began negotiating Cabrera’s resignation last fall after news broke that he and Fenenbock were accused of defrauding a group of charter school investors who gave money to eSchool Prep. Trustees said because they learned about his latest nonprofit in a closed-door session they could not specify who informed them.

“Juan Cabrera kept the trustees in the dark — at least me,” Trustee Freddy Klayel-Avalos said. “He kept me in the dark as to what he was doing during that time. I was not aware, and if anyone else on the board was aware, I wasn’t made aware.”

The civil lawsuit against Cabrera and Fenenbock in California state court is pending. In January, the judge directed the involved parties to attempt to mediate the case.

As he did with eSchool Prep, Cabrera communicated about Public School Partners during the work day and attended afternoon virtual board meetings, according to emails and meeting minutes.

Jose López

His chief of staff, Jose López, who consulted for Fenenbock’s school, also appears in emails and was given a Public School Partners email address.

López’s contact information, including his cell phone and Public School Partners email, is listed on a vendor application form the nonprofit submitted to Benavides ISD in May 2020. The organization’s mailing address is the same as his El Paso County voter registration address.

Cabrera, via email, disputed the claim that his unpaid work with Public School Partners and eSchool distracted him from the position he was paid to do in El Paso.

“As Superintendent I was available 7 days a week to work on EPISD related matters and our results speak for themselves,” he wrote. “We went from state control in 2013 to one of the highest performing districts in Texas in 2018.”

During his seven-year tenure, Cabrera said he served on more than 15 education-related nonprofits and committees “while maintaining a high focus on our district work.”

He described Public School Partners as a nonprofit “formed to support public school districts with innovative school models.”

It is implementing a Pathways in Technology Early College High School, or P-TECH, program for approximately 140 students at Benavides Secondary School that enables them to simultaneously earn a diploma and associate’s degree, according to materials Benavides ISD submitted to the Texas Education Agency. This in-district charter is allowed under Senate Bill 1882, a 2017 law that lets districts partner with outside organizations, like charters or nonprofits, to turn around failing schools, rather than face state sanctions.

The school board was “all caught off guard” when they learned about Public School Partners, Trustee Al Velarde said: “There were no red flags during this period.”

The revelation that Cabrera was working on not one but two outside schools “affirmed … we needed to create an exit plan,” Velarde said. “That was the last straw.”

Velarde, Bob Geske, Chuck Taylor and Diane Dye were on the board in 2017 and approved the consulting clause in Cabrera’s amended contract.

Al Velarde

The intent was for Cabrera to “sell” EPISD’s successes at national education conferences and meetings, Velarde said. “At the time, nobody is thinking that consultation is also working with somebody else to open up a brand new charter school that does internet (learning).”

“Sadly, you can’t predict every kind of perversion” of “a policy regulation,” Velarde said.

Trustees Josh Acevedo, Daniel Call and Klayel-Avalos — who joined the board in summer 2019 — believed the consulting clause, specifically the provision that Cabrera need not inform them of unpaid work, limited their ability to oversee the superintendent. But they couldn’t remove it because contract negotiations, or renegotiations, must be agreed upon by both the superintendent and the board.

Velarde said he would allow a similar clause in the next superintendent’s contract, but with the caveat that consulting could only include conference participation or activities that promote EPISD’s success.

Acevedo, Call and Klayel-Avalos, who with Velarde form part of the new board that will hire Cabrera’s successor, said they wouldn’t allow that person to consult for outside districts or businesses.

Geske and Taylor did not seek reelection this May, and Dye lost her bid for a third term.

Trustees were concerned enough about Cabrera’s involvement with Fenenbock’s company, eSchool Prep, that in December 2019 they directed Chief Internal Auditor Mayra Martinez to “review and look at what was occurring in the report that El Paso Times had run,” said Velarde, who chaired the board audit committee. Trustees largely found out about Fenenbock’s online school through the newspaper’s reporting.

“It was just an opportunity … to meet with our attorney to be able to see if we had enough information to say that there was a contract violation in place,” Velarde said. Trustees specifically tasked Martinez with reviewing whether district resources, including personnel, were “being used in furtherance of this activity.”

Velarde said Martinez completed her review Feb. 5, 2020, and only gave a copy to himself and Geske, the then-board president. The other five trustees, he said, were to be provided a copy the next day during a special meeting held to complete Cabrera’s summative evaluation — the annual evaluation the Texas Education Code requires. But Cabrera canceled the meeting, the reason for which is unknown.

The district also sought to keep Martinez’s review shielded from public view.

It  was to “be used by the Board as part of its formal annual evaluation of the Superintendent, and was intended to be an integral part thereof,” EPISD attorney Anthony Safi wrote in a letter he sent the Texas Attorney General’s Office seeking to keep it secret after El Paso Matters requested the document.

In February, the attorney general ruled that the review was “confidential” because it could be considered an administrator evaluation. Trustees are also prohibited from discussing the review’s findings.

Trustees never completed Cabrera’s evaluation because they voted unanimously in late April to waive all educator evaluations for the 2019-20 school year due to coronavirus, including the superintendent’s.

In the eight months between when the internal auditor finished her review and Cabrera was sued in California state court, it was never added to a regular meeting agenda, nor were any special meetings called to address its findings.

Juan Cabrera presented a certificate to student Mia Milliorn during the September 2019 school board meeting. (Photo courtesy of EPISD)

Asked why it took so long for all seven trustees to see it, multiple trustees, including Velarde, said their attention turned to the pandemic, and the unforeseen challenges it brought.

Acevedo said he asked Gekse about the review in a March 2020 phone call, but couldn’t disclose the outcome of the conversation because it involved action that took place in executive session.

Geske couldn’t answer why it took months for the entire board to read the review. In retrospect, he said he wished everyone had seen it at the same time because “it would have saved a lot of heartache.”

Because trustees directed Martinez, the auditor, to review Cabrera’s outside consulting work during a closed-door discussion, the public only learned about her review when Velarde mentioned it in an October 2020 interview with El Paso Inc.

López, Cabrera’s chief of staff, was also evaluated in the review, according to the letter EPISD’s attorney sent the Attorney General’s Office. López resigned Dec. 14, 2020, weeks after El Paso Matters reported that he had not obtained the necessary approval from Cabrera to consult for Fenenbock’s school.

Velarde said he doesn’t believe the review’s findings would have allowed them to terminate Cabrera for contract violations:

“When you look back at the whole thing, it’s my opinion … we had the best possible result that could happen, and that is Mr. Cabrera voluntarily resigning from his seat,” he said. “It took time, there was space, but we avoided lengthy, expensive legal battles. I don’t believe — these are my opinions — that we ever had enough to truly do a termination on him without having to face (a) serious legal battle.”

Such a battle would have been costly for the district and resulted in arbitration, which Velarde suspects could have led to a forced resignation and higher payout. Instead, Cabrera and the board agreed to a voluntary separation that paid him approximately $558,900 — the equivalent of a year’s salary and benefits.

“Sometimes you just gotta give people enough rope, and you give them the rope and they’ll hang themselves,” Velarde said. “I hate to say it that way, but it is the truth — in this particular case, that is exactly what happened.” Through the lawsuit, “we got the facts that we needed to be able to do what we did.”

“His involvement (with eSchoolPrep) was much greater than what he was telling me,” Velarde added.

Klayel-Avalos speculated that a majority of the seven-member board would not have supported taking punitive action against the superintendent based on the review’s finding. He said he likely would have voted in the minority, but declined to say which trustees he believes would have been in the majority.

Klayel-Avalos, Acevedo and Call were initially most critical of Cabrera’s work with Fenenbock’s virtual school.

“Prior to (the lawsuit), as much concern as I would have had, and as much personal feelings as I would have had (about his consulting), my understanding was legally, there was nothing wrong,” Klayel-Avalos said.

Taylor was more blunt in his assessment. “I think it was just fishing in the water for something to find to gripe about,” he said.

In interviews, it was clear a split emerged between those who believe Cabrera engaged in wrongdoing through his consulting activities and those who don’t.

“Not one person in our district — not one student, faculty, administrator or support personnel was affected by this,” Geske said. Cabrera did not violate any district policy, he said.

Bob Geske

“I have nothing but admiration for what he did for the school district — he took us from the outhouse to the penthouse, to be real honest with you. He’s an extraordinary administrator and he’s also a friend of mine.”

Taylor highlighted Cabrera’s May 2020 selection as Superintendent of the Year for Region 19, which covers El Paso and Hudspeth counties.

Geske, Taylor and Dye voted against authorizing the board’s attorney to follow up with Velarde about a discussion that took place behind closed doors during an Oct. 30, 2020, special meeting — just one week before trustees unanimously approved Cabrera’s separation agreement with the district.

Though trustees disagree about the review’s findings, the six board members interviewed for this story were united on one key point: they, as individual trustees, did not fail to oversee the superintendent. Dye declined to be interviewed.

“I did everything I could to hold him accountable, and I think it speaks for itself how long it took for there to be true accountability to discuss what was happening,” Acevedo said, referring to the year between when the board first learned about eSchool Prep and when Cabrera resigned.

Josh Acevedo

“I do think that there were past board members that had had a relationship for years with him and they thought that he was very effective in his job and they were very happy with him,” he said.

Acevedo declined to say who he thinks was too close to Cabrera.

Velarde described his relationship with Cabrera as strictly professional.

“I keep a distance because my integrity is very important to me,” Velarde said, adding he never socialized with Cabrera, such as by getting meals or drinks with him. He too declined to say whether certain trustees had become too close to the superintendent.

Geske said he wasn’t too close to Cabrera and described his “friendship” with him as one of “mutual respect.”

“We worked well together. We had a few beers together once in a while over some things we were working on,” he said. “He was a friend. Just like the other school board members are friends of mine, but I don’t socialize with them. And we didn’t socialize that way.”

Education experts say a district’s success is based on a strong working relationship between the superintendent and the school board.

David DeMatthews, an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Texas at Austin who researches school leadership and previously worked at UTEP, said that doesn’t mean that board members can’t disagree with or challenge their superintendent.

“They’re not friends; they’re colleagues,” DeMatthews said. “They’re working together but the board has a responsibility to the public to maintain a relationship that allows them to effectively do their job,” which includes monitoring and evaluating the district’s progress.

Cabrera officially left the district on Feb. 1, but the new board is grappling with decisions made under his watch.

Last week, EPISD published an internal audit that found “an appearance of conflict of interest” between Cabrera and two academic service vendors he promoted and with which his nonprofit contracted.

According to the audit, in early May 2020, Cabrera — as board chair of Public School Partners — voted to contract with Renaissance K-12 Educational Software Systems and Engage Learning Inc., also known as Engage2Learn. Weeks later, in mid-June, and again in late September, he signed contracts with these same vendors on behalf of EPISD.

It also revealed Cabrera has a professional and social relationship with Renaissance’s senior strategic field account executive, who is married to Public School Partners’ board vice chair. Emilio Zamora, whose LinkedIn profile lists him as strategic account manager for Renaissance, is married to Vice Chair Martha Salazar-Zamora.

The auditor recommended EPISD “implement controls” to ensure that the superintendent, among other administrators with purchasing authority, file annual conflict of interest affidavits. Cabrera hadn’t filed such an affidavit since 2017, the report noted.

Beyond institutional fixes, many community members, and even trustees themselves, believe making the right hire for the next superintendent is critical to ending EPISD’s reputation of having its leaders leave under questionable circumstances. Cabrera’s predecessor, Lorenzo Garcia, resigned in 2011 following his indictment and arrest on federal fraud charges.

Multiple candidates running for the open trustee seats in the May 1 election called for hiring someone “ethical,” “honest” and “trustworthy.” Others suggested having the next superintendent agree to sign a morality clause.

Velarde, the most senior member on the board, views Cabrera’s outside consulting work, and the secrecy surrounding it, as “a unique case.” “Will it ever present itself to us again in the same manner? I doubt it,” he said.

But for Acevedo, the experience working with Cabrera clarified the type of person he wants to see in the role.

“(Cabrera) taught me what I don’t want to see in a superintendent — a lucrative contract, a contract where he or she has so much power, no consulting,” he said.  “I want somebody that is going to be focused on education, driven by education and not by money.”

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.