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$25,000 spent renovating EPISD offices amid budget crisis; district responds

By: Bill Melugin
EL PASO, Texas -- Newly released documents show around $25,000 was spent remodeling executive offices at the El Paso Independent School District while the district faces a $17 million budget deficit.

KFOX14 has been the only TV station investigating the costs associated with the renovations.

After more than a week of asking the district about the costs, and having our requests to see the offices denied repeatedly, KFOX14 exclusively obtained multiple EPISD purchase orders from an anonymous source on Wednesday showing $9,500 had been spent renovating Superintendent Juan Cabrera's office.

Shortly after that, EPISD promised KFOX14 a tour of the offices and a full list of all expenditures.

On Thursday KFOX14 received the full open records request and were given a full tour of the offices.

District officials gave KFOX14 a walkthrough of several administrative offices that were renovated - offices were combined and walls were knocked down.

Cabrera's office included all the items listed in the purchase orders including a new glass showcase with glass shelves and doors, new carpeting, a high-capacity refrigerator, a microwave and new conference chairs.

EPISD officials said walls were pushed out and 161 square feet was added to the room for extra meeting space, and all of Cabrera's renovations were done by December. The entire office area was finished a few weeks ago.

See a walkthrough of the renovations.

The district's new chief of staff Dr. Tom Miller answered some questions about the timing of the renovations.

"Actually, the renovations to the executive offices were planned before they even hired Mr. Cabrera; much of the work was completed before he was brought on as superintendent," Miller said. "After he came, they had allocated additional money in this year's budget to complete the renovations because they weren't finished, so a lot of it was completed in December 2013 before the budget shortfall was even discovered. I know that they needed to complete the work, so the rest of the executive team, including myself, could come in and occupy the offices. This is the first time in three years, I believe, that there's been a full executive team working with the superintendent. So, he wanted to get his team on board, and that's why they did some of the remodeling and things that they did."

KFOX14 received numerous emails from EPISD teachers including photos of damaged equipment in their classrooms, wondering why only central office is getting renovations.

KFOX14 asked Miller to respond to allegations that the district cares more about its top high-paying administrators than it does its teachers and students.

"I think we always put our students as a high priority. I worked in the YSLETA district for 18 years, and I know we put a high priority on getting those things fixed," Miller said. "I'm sure there's a maintenance schedule, I'm sure those things are on the schedule and I'm positive they'll be fixed."

District officials said that although $25,000 sounds like a lot of money, it isn't much in the grand scheme of things. Officials said these renovations were very necessary.

Miller was asked about the apparent secrecy on the part of EPISD in not allowing KFOX14 to view the offices for more than a week.

"I don't know that it was secrecy initially. I know that we've been trying to get the costs together, also for the last week, Mr. Cabrera has been extremely busy dealing with the budget situation we've got," Miller said.  "I don't think it was a question of hiding anything or avoiding anything, that's why we're having this session today."

KFOX14 also asked Miller why the renovations were done when the building's lease expires in three years.

"Well, people have to work somewhere," Miller said."Whether or not we're gonna leave here in three years or whenever, I think the work needed to be done; some of the stuff in there was useless."