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EPISD terminates superintendent search firm over potential conflict of interest

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The El Paso Independent School District is back to square one in its search for a permanent superintendent after the school board nixed the contract with the firm it hired months earlier to lead a nationwide search for the position. 

The EPISD Board of Trustees voted 6-1 on Aug. 17 to terminate the $21,500 contract it entered into with the Austin-based Texas Association of School Boards Executive Search Services in late March. Trustee Daniel Call cast the lone dissenting vote.

Former Superintendent Juan Cabrera resigned in November 2020 after he was sued in California state court on fraud allegations tied to one of his external consulting ventures. The board did not set a timeframe for naming a new district leader when it appointed Vince Sheffield interim superintendent that same month.

TASB Executive Search Services Director Butch Felkner said the board’s decision came after he notified trustees of a potential conflict of interest: a team member’s relative was interested in applying for the position.

“I felt it worthy to be transparent to the district and that it would seem to be a conflict of interest on our end if we continued on with the search,” Felkner said.

TASB did not charge EPISD for the work it had done thus far, which included a community-wide online survey and interviews with administrators and campus staff about the kind of leader they want.

The board’s decision pushes back the timeline for hiring a permanent superintendent until early next year, if not longer.

Daniel Call

Trustee Call, who represents the Coronado High School feeder pattern on the city’s West Side, said he voted against the contract termination because he did not want to delay the search process.

“The public elected us to do a job and probably the most important action that I’ll ever take as a trustee is who we hire as the superintendent, so I take that very seriously, but it’s already been far, far too long,” Call said. “I’m very anxious to make this decision and let the new superintendent roll up their sleeves and get to work.”

Call would like to see someone hired by the end of 2021, though that may be a tight turnaround. It typically takes four to five months to hire a superintendent once a district selects a search firm, Felkner previously said.

Call said he would have preferred for EPISD to amend the contract with TASB Executive Search Services to preclude the employee’s relative from applying for the position. The contract could alternatively have been amended to preclude the employee from continuing to work on the search, he said.

Board President Al Velarde said he couldn’t speak about the contract. “That is a matter that was discussed in closed session and I cannot discuss it publicly,” he said in a text message.

TASB was the most affordable of the three firms trustees considered in late March, which Call said factored into his desire to continue with its services.

The other firms EPISD considered — Austin-based Walsh Gallegos Treviño Russo & Kyle P.C. and Florida-based Greenwood/Asher & Associates — put in bids of $40,000 and $95,600, respectively.

The school board will discuss hiring a new search firm at a special board meeting, Velarde said. A meeting date has not been set.

EPISD is now in a similar place as the Socorro Independent School District, which is also without a permanent superintendent following José Espinoza’s May resignation. The Socorro Independent School District is in the process of soliciting proposals for search firms.

Cover photo: El Paso Independent School District Trustees Freddy Khlayel-Avalos, Isabel Hernandez and Interim Superintendent Vince Sheffield, listen to public comments during an Aug. 17 school board meeting. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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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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