Former superintendent may have bent the rules when it came to awarding district contracts: EPISD audit

El Paso News

EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — An El Paso Independent School District audit found former Superintendent Juan Cabrera initiated contracts with two vendors for academic services that gave “an appearance of a conflict of interest due to social/professional relationships.”

The audit cites a professional relationship between Cabrera and a senior member of Renaissance, a vendor cited in the audit. It also claims he knew the individual in college and that the individual’s spouse sits on the board of Cabrera’s Texas New Schools Accelerator Inc. organization.

A subsection of the audit described a missed opportunity to save the district $1.28 million “waste” spending after the contracting of Con Mi Madre and Engage Learning.

EPISD’s anticipated audit reviewed 10 contracts for academic services totaling nearly $3.5 million. In it, district auditors discovered budget overseers for five contracts totaling $1.89 million were not involved in a needs assessment of the services, they’d been passed down to them and they did not know if there had been a needs assessments of the contracts.

The audit alleges former superintendent Juan Cabrera initiated contracts with vendors Renaissance Learning and Engage Learning for services totaling $2.12 million against staff recommendation. The audit claims the two vendors have received $2.86 million and 2.92 million between the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 fiscal years.

EPISD’s audit published on Thursday also found that Cabrera initiated academic services with Austin-based Con Mi Madre without justification.

“The former superintendent directed academics staff to acquire contracted services from Renaissance Learning, Engage Learning and Con Mi Madre, which totaled approximately $2.32 million,” the audit stated. “Funds were not budgeted to cover the contracted services from E2L in the amount of approximately $1.08 million.”

Cabrera generally defended his policies pushing the district to obtain contracted services. And, in a response to auditors about why he had his staff acquire the services, Cabrera said they had knowledge that was needed in the district.

“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,” Cabrera said. “Everyone of those ideas was mine and I stand behind them 100 percent today, no regrets.”

The audit claims emails were found between district staff discussing how to find money to pay for the contracted services. And, that the individual acquisition of $1.08 million in September 2020 was not taken to the board of trustees for approval.

“The BOT (trustees) was not aware of this specific contract,” the audit read.

Renaissance provided KTSM 9 News with a statement.

Renaissance is a market leader in EdTech with proven practice, assessment, and instructional solutions in over 60% of the schools in the United States. El Paso Independent School District has been a long standing and valued customer of Renaissance for over 20 years.  Over the course of that period Renaissance has provided EPISD with a variety of products and services to improve student outcomes and accelerate learning. “

KTSM 9 News has reached out to Engage Learning and Con Mi Madre for comment.

Cabrera resigned from his position at EPISD on Nov. 5, 2020 and was paid more than $500,000 under a voluntary separation agreement with the district.

Alleged conflict of interest

EPISD’s audit alleges there appears to be a conflict of interest between Cabrera and a senior member of Renaissance. The audit claims the two met in 1983 in college in South Texas and that their wife serves on Cabrera’s board for his business.

Also, executive-level personnel at EPISD said there seemed to be an atmosphere that favored acquiring services from Engage to Learn.

Tamekia Brown, who is currently on paid administrative leave for unspecified reasons, told auditors that Cabrera would ask “how much money are we spending on Engage to Learn” and “What can we do to get them to give us services?”

“But the former superintendent did not ask ‘what do teachers need,” Brown told auditors.

Finding funds for a contract

In August, administrators discussed finding $1.08 million to provide funding for a contract with Engage Learning. Emails revealed a discussion between Carmen Arrieta-Candelaria, the deputy superintendent of finance and operations and Brown over the funds.

In it, Candelaria, who is also on paid leave, told Brown the district had two ways for paying for the services. The district could use local funds or bid using federal funds but it would’ve prohibited Engage Learning because they helped develop the scope of work needed.

“I do not have local money to cover the cost of this work,” Brown replied to Arrieta-Candelaria. “We will have to forego at this time, I will notify the team.”

But auditors found the district was going ahead with the services as described in an email sent to budget administrators that said “As agreed, we will take the $1.1 million for the E2L (Engage 2 Learn) contract from the funding reserved to COVID related expenses in fund 199.”

The school board had previously allocated $10 million for COVID-related expenses including personal protection equipment and for instructional technology. Auditors found the money was transferred from a salary account in curriculum and instruction to a miscellaneous contracted services account under the active learning department budget.

Auditors say the acquisition in September 2020 was not approved by the board of trustees.

“The board of trustees was not aware of this specific contract,” the audit says.

Initiating contracts without justification

The audit also alleges former EPISD superintendent pushed his staff to initiate contracts with outside vendors, though executive personnel pushed back against the efforts.

EPISD auditors interviewed Brown and other administrative staff about why the district pursued contracts with Renaissance, Engage Learning, and Con Mi Madre.

The audit says staff was pushed to make a switch from an academic services system called Istation to the Renaissance program, though they did not offer Spanish services and the school year was set to begin within six days.

Brown told auditors there was an issue identifying what licenses the district could utilize to assist teachers and other educational staff. She said, they’d not known the full capabilities of what Renaissance could provide but the superintendent and his chief of staff appeared to know more.

“Renaissance does not have a Spanish intervention (for students), which Istation had,” she told auditors. “As such, the change prompted the need to acquire another tool to cover intervention. The district has not purchased another product to support dual language students.”

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