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EPISD’s top academic, operations officials put on leave amid audit

EL PASO, Texas -- Two top El Paso Independent School District administrators were put on leave ahead of Wednesday evening's board meeting to discuss an internal audit.

El Paso Independent School District Deputy Superintendent of Finance and Operations Carmen Arrieta-Candelaria and Chief Academics Officer Tamekia Brown were placed on administrative leave with pay earlier this week, district spokesperson Melissa Martinez said.

Martinez said she could not comment on the action, “as it’s a personnel matter.”

The action comes as the Board of Trustees was convene Wednesday evening for a special meeting about an internal audit into contracted services for academic programs. The scope of the audit is unknown.

It is unusual for the board to meet in closed session to discuss a draft audit.

The meeting agenda notes the board could take unspecified action following their discussion “if needed.”

District spokesperson Gustavo Reveles said the audit will not be finalized — and made public — until the district creates a corrective action plan. That plan is due May 27, he said.

The EPISD board on Tuesday voted to postpone approving three academic contracts related to programming and training, after some members cited the audit as the reason for the delay.

The board voted 4-2 to postpone a nearly $110,000 contract renewal with Renaissance K-12 Educational Software Systems for an elementary school reading program. Trustees Josh Acevedo, Daniel Call, Freddy Klayel-Avalos and Al Velarde voted to postpone while Diane Dye and Bob Geske voted against it. Trustee Chuck Taylor was absent.

“I don’t feel comfortable, in my opinion, moving forward with Renaissance at this point … until we have more information about what that audit is going to be …” Acevedo said.

Klayel-Avalos described Renaissance as “a little controversial right now.”

The board did not approve a nearly $111,700 contract with NoRedInk Corp. and postponed a decision on a nearly $167,000 Ellevation, Inc. contract, with some again citing the audit as a factor in their decision.

“This is very challenging in light of what we’re going to be moving with tomorrow,” Velarde said.

Questions over $1.1 million Engage2Learn transfer

Trustees were also unanimous in their decision to postpone approving a nearly $1.8 million budget transfer to pay for a $1.1 million Engage Learning Inc. contract administrators agreed to in September 2020. More commonly known as Engage2Learn, the company trains teachers on active learning strategies. The same item was postponed April 20. 

Trustees first learned of that contract in April when Deputy Superintendent of Finance and Operations Carmen Arrieta-Candelaria sought their approval to move unused money budgeted for salaries to cover a shortfall in funds allocated for staff training. Trustees were not explicitly told what the transfer would cover, which led Acevedo and Velardeto question whether it was for Engage2Learn.

The Engage2Learn contract was paid for out of a $10 million “bucket” — or a broad spending category — trustees previously approved for pandemic-related expenses. Buckets are intended to make it easier for administrators to purchase bulk routine supplies from pre-approved vendors, but EPISD also used them for contracted academic services.

“The understanding for me here is that what we’ve done is we entered into that Engage2Learn contract utilizing a bucket, therefore the board was not specifically informed at that time that that’s what the money was going to be used for,” Velarde said at the April 20 meeting.

Arrieta-Candelaria was told then to bring a more detailed transfer request to Tuesday’s meeting.

In a memo provided to trustees in advance of Tuesday’s meeting, she wrote that “a request was made by the former superintendent (Juan Cabrera) through the former chief of staff (José Lopez) to use the local COVID funds” to train teachers on virtual learning. Chief Academic Officer Tamekia Brown supported the contracted services, the memo noted.

Arrieta-Candelaria was hired to manage the district’s finances in May 2016, after she had served on the state-appointed board of managers that led EPISD in the wake of its cheating scandal, and which hired former Superintendent Juan Cabrera.

Cabrera resigned in November and the district is being led by interim superintendent Vince Sheffield.

Brown was hired in 2015, serving as the executive director of academics before being named interim chief academic Officer. She was promoted to the permanent position in July 2017.

El Paso Matters - Molly Smith

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