El Paso

EPISD board votes to extend superintendent's contract until 2023

EPISD board votes to extend...

EL PASO, Texas - The El Paso Independent School Board Thursday voted to extend the contract of superintendent Juan Cabrera until 2023. 

The vote to extend the contract was 4-2 with board trustees Susie Byrd and Al Velarde voting against extending the contract. Trustee Chuck Taylor was not present.

Before that vote, Byrd made a motion to consider accepting the resignation of the superintendent for "immorality" and conscious misrepresentation to the board.

Trustee Diane Dye made a motion that Susie Byrd recuse herself from the proceedings, and accept Dye's letter discussing conflicts of interest and "other issues discussed in executive session."

Hatch asked for a few minutes for the legal team to review the motions and make sure everything was done properly. After 40 minutes behind closed doors, the board returned and voted to approve revisions to the superintendent's contract and the yearly review, which was held during executive session. 

Hatch then said the other two motions, the ones calling for Cabrera's resignation and for Byrd to recuse herself were "out of order," and dismissed. Cabrera was not in the room for the votes.

Cabrera told ABC-7 Byrd's motion asking for his resignation caught him by surprise. "The board meets on its own and makes is own decisions. I was disappointed that wasn't disclosed to me before. I heard it the same time you heard it and that's how the process works," Cabrera told ABC-7, "It's not uncommon to have division on the board, in fact, it's more common to have division instead of 7-0 board (unanimous). I think we can get back there."

Byrd told ABC-7 Cabrera she has always been up front with the superintendent. "We have a superintendent who has conducted himself in an unethical manner. We have a duty and an obligation to hold him accountable," Byrd said, "the board's failure to take action in the face of clear and proper behavior is problematic."

"The wonderful thing about a board - seven trustees - is everyone has a voice and I applaud the trustees for sharing their thoughts and voices," board president Hatch said, "As you saw today, the board voted 4-2 in support of our superintendent we will continue to work closely together - even if our opinions differ."

In January 2017, the EPISD Board awarded Cabrera a $45,000 pay raise, bumping the superintendent's salary to nearly $350,000 a year. That salary figure does not include bonuses and other benefits. 

Cabrera was hired in 2013 by a board of managers appointed by the state. The elected board had been removed after they allowed then-superintendent Lorenzo Garcia to create a scheme to change students grades, raise attainment scores and secure bonuses.

Cabrera, a school law attorney and former teacher, was seen as instrumental in turning around a district ravaged by scandal and key in re-building EPISD's reputation.

This month, however, EPISD released an audit finding saying the superintendent acted inappropriately - though not illegally - when he contacted a potential vendor, then wrote a framework for the Request for Qualifications for the services needed. Cabrera did not take part in the selection of the vendor, the audit found.

EPISD said in a statement: 

"Our audit found the procurement process for RFQ #17-069 was conducted in accordance with District policies and state laws/regulations. However, we identified practices that give the appearance the pre-solicitation phase was not conducted in a strategic or transparent manner. In addition, we found indicators of vendor favoritism, insider information, and bid tailoring. These indicators, based on procurement best practices, give the appearance the pre-solicitation and evaluation phases were not conducted in a transparent, ethical, and/or impartial manner. To be clear, these indicators are a warning of a potential risk and not a certain sign of improprieties."

On Tuesday, ABC-7 reported there was tension within the EPISD board. Newly-appointed trustee Mickey Loweree raised concerns that Byrd had a conflict of interest by sitting on the board while being a paid campaign manager for Veronica Escobar, who is running for Congress. Loweree said Byrd never disclosed to the board her employment, and the Conflict of Interest disclosure forms obtained by ABC-7 through an Open Records request confirm that. Byrd said her job in the campaign wasn't a secret and denied her position on the board was used to secure the American Teachers Federation endorsement for Escobar.

The congressional race could be casting a shadow on EPISD's board interactions. One of Escobar's strongest opponents is Dori Fenenbock, who sat on the EPISD board with Byrd until she stepped down last August to run for Congress. 

Byrd last year accused Cabrera of soliciting campaign donations on behalf of Fenenbock, which he still denies.  On Tuesday, he told ABC-7 that while he's friends with Fenenbock, he is not involved in the race. "I'm not part of the campaign, I'm not a volunteer, Dori and I are friends, I think she'd be the best congresswoman for El Paso," Cabrera said.

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