Juan Eduardo Cabrera, the new superintendent of the El Paso Independent School District, isn’t like any superintendent the district ever had before.
One look at his résumé will tell you that: a teacher for three years, then a degree from the University of Texas School of Law, six years with big law firms in Austin and Houston and then five years with software companies in Latin America and Europe.
Cabrera, 48, spent five of the past seven years at two Austin law firms, working with school districts by advising them on various legal matters.
Conspicuously absent from his résumé are the superintendent certificate that the Texas Education Agency requires and a series of positions in education that reflects years of rising through the ranks and the politics – the dues that superintendents typically have to pay.
Without a TEA certificate, he will need a waiver to serve as superintendent, but he’ll hardly be the first.
“It’s not that common, but it does happen,” said DeEtta Culbertson, a spokeswoman for TEA. “We get requests for waivers once every three or four years.
“I know the superintendent in Dallas, even though he was a superintendent in Colorado, had to get a waiver for Texas.”
“Not that common” might be an understatement, given that Texas has 1,035 school districts.
They range from Houston ISD with an enrollment of 203,354 students last year, to El Paso at 12th with 63,000, to Kerr County’s Novice ISD and its 12 students, according to TEA.
And in light of an ongoing FBI investigation that has already resulted in convictions of a previous superintendent and several trustees, finding a top-flight, traditional superintendent to put the district back on track might have been difficult.
Especially with the elected board of trustees sidelined indefinitely while the district is run by a state-appointed board of managers.
“The bottom line was we were open to non-traditional candidates,” said Dee Margo, president of the district’s state-appointed board of managers. “Let’s face it, we had a superintendent who had been well-versed, well-schooled and well-experienced, and he’s in jail.
“I don’t think that’s got a whole heck of a lot to do with it. We’re talking about the character of the individual and his competence.”
The job had been posted since last October, and there were 91 applicants.
“The board reviewed 16 applicants and interviewed, I think, six or seven on Skype,” Margo said. “We wanted to have two finalists to interview face to face.”
But, Margo said, the No. 2 candidate, who had superintendent experience, backed out. That left Cabrera, whom the board and Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams liked.
The board picked him as the sole finalist in mid-August and voted unanimously to hire him on Sept. 2. Cabrera signed his contract at the end of last Tuesday’s board of trustees meeting. Margo declined to disclose the terms of the contract or Cabrera’s salary.
“This is the only job I’ve applied for, and I was lucky enough to obtain it,” Cabrera said.
He isn’t from El Paso but he knows the city because his mother lives here, as does his younger brother, KVIA Channel 7 news anchor Rick Cabrera.
The new superintendent was making the rounds in his first days on the job last week and found time to talk to El Paso Inc.
Cabrera indicated in this interview that he thought he already had the required waiver from Williams and was good to go.
He doesn’t, but Williams apparently is prepared to approve it when TEA receives a copy of Cabrera’s contract and the district’s written request for a waiver that will give him three years to earn a superintendent certificate.
Cabrera talked to El Paso Inc. about his past life as a lawyer and corporate executive, what drew him to El Paso and why he thinks he is the right man for this job.
Q: EPISD is a troubled district, the 12th largest school district in Texas, and where you wanted to get into the business for the first time? What made you apply for this particular job?
Here’s the way I looked at this and why I think it ended up being a good fit for me. I have a lot of friends who are superintendents across the state and we’re all talking about El Paso. Everybody in the business is talking about it. As I visited with some of the key folks I knew would either be approached to apply or had applied, it just seemed there was a lot of trepidation for them and their traditional career path for them to potentially put this on their résumé if it didn’t go well.
For me, somebody who had already had a successful legal career, a successful school practice and had aspired to be a superintendent, I had none of those fears or concerns. I don’t need to have another superintendency after this. I don’t need to go anywhere else. I don’t need to leave El Paso. If they’ll have me, I can stay for a while.
I’m financially in a situation where I’m not driven by the next bigger job either. So, as I started to look at that along with the fact that being a lawyer to a major company and working in very difficult situations, none of the big concerns that traditional superintendents were afraid of are a concern for me.
To me this is pretty typical business for my background and experience, along with the fact that I was in education and I wanted to be a superintendent. I may not have been the best superintendent candidate for the job, but I believe I am the best person for this job at this particular time.
Q: You worked in Europe. What did you do there?
After law school, I took jobs at two of the biggest law firms in Texas to work in their corporate technology and litigation sections. That was a traditional law practice and even though I didn’t aspire to be a lawyer for my entire life, I wanted to have a traditional practice, big 500 person law firms. Then, I moved immediately into general counsel work, initially working for the largest investment firm in the U.S., Aim Funds, that was bought by Invesco, which is still the largest mutual fund in the world. So, I was the global counsel, the privacy counsel and managed a number of funds. From there, BMC Software hired me to run all operations and accounting, finance and legal in Latin America. We had about a $100-million operation in five offices covering about 18 countries.
After a couple years of that, they asked me to move to Amsterdam and be part of the international management team that ran an $850-million operation with a cross-section of five leaders in sales finance operations, legal and essentially marketing. We were given the P&L to run all of the organizations in Europe.
After about five years of that, I was hired to be the general manager and CEO of about a $100-million operation in London to sell a slightly different kind of software. Then, IBM bought that company in 2007, and I was given the chance to repatriate.
Q: Could you have stayed? Would IBM have kept you?
I was offered a chance to run Spain for them, which is a big jump. If you’re working at a $100-million business, that’s probably a fifth of Spain’s business for IBM. It would have been a big promotion, but my wife was ready to come back. My in-laws had begun to get older; we had family getting sick. I think when I went to Latin America initially, I told her it would be two years of international work. It turned into six or seven altogether. She was ready to come home, and I was as well.
Q: What does this job mean to you?
For me, it’s a marriage of running a big business, which is exactly what this is, with a passion for our product, which is trying to do our part along with the community to help grow, support and develop young, engaged adults.
Q: Your parents are educators. What did you learn from them about education that will help you in this job?
I think the most important thing is just being a servant of the people and looking out for the needs of those that may not be as lucky as us. We all came up through public education. My parents were first-time college-goers in their families, and they became teachers.
I learned about education almost though osmosis, working with my dad in migrant education programs, working with farm workers and farm worker rights in the ‘70s in California, spending all of my formative years with teachers and educators.
Q: What exactly did your parents do?
My mom ended up being a career high-school teacher. She taught Spanish, bilingual ed and history. My father started as a teacher and became a principal in Fremont, Calif., and then became the director of one of the first migrant education programs in Northern California.
My parents divorced when I was 10 so you know what happens, sometimes living in a single-parent household when your parents are living 3,000 miles apart and kids get shuttled around a lot.
Q: You were a classroom teacher for a while. Tell me about that.
I taught first grade to Spanish-speaking kids at Edgewood ISD in South San Antonio. My second year, I taught a fifth-grade, self-contained class, again Spanish-speaking migrant kids in San Jose, Calif. And, my third year of teaching was in East Austin in Austin ISD. That was when I was getting ready to do to law school.
Q: What made you decide to leave teaching and education and go to law school?
I was certain that I wanted to get an advanced degree. I took the LSAT and scored very high, much higher than I did on the GMAT for business school. I went to UT law school in Austin.
Q: In terms of your knowledge of public school operations – from getting food in the cafeteria that kids will eat and should eat to directing educators who’ve been in the trenches for years dealing with curriculum and classroom issues – are you really prepared for this job?
Absolutely. I spent quite a bit of time in the last five years in and around school systems watching as they operate. To me, at the core of what it is, a school district is a really a people business and it’s about managing a business and hiring and retaining and growing the best people.
Of all the superintendents all over the country and a lot here in Texas, none of them are great at everything. Most of them come up through one specialty area, and the vast majority don’t come up through curriculum and instruction, which is a misnomer because most people believe it’s the best principals and the best curriculum people who end up being superintendents.
But, if you really get to know the best curriculum and principal people, that’s what they want to do the rest of their lives. More often than not, the best superintendents are folks that come up through operations, have a lot of experience in the other management sides of the business and are able to deal with the difficult situations, such as governance, such as all the legal issues you face, all the legislative changes, fiscal management of a district.
Those are the areas that I’m very, very strong in, and I’m going to find the best people I can find on the schools management and the curriculum instruction management and hold them accountable for the results that we expect.
Q: In order to be a superintendent, you’re supposed to have a principal certificate and a superintendent certificate, according to the TEA website. Do you have them?
I’ve got a waiver, the board of managers requested a waiver and I’ve got a three-year waiver to get a (superintendent) certificate from the board. I think over the last 10 years across the country, what’s become the norm – or at least it’s become much more normal – is that you have a lot of nontraditional candidates going to the superintendencies. So, therefore, states across the U.S. have provided more and more waivers for folks like myself that want to bring some of their business experience and legal experience to come in and manage the school district.
Q: The school district waived the requirement for your certificate?
The school district doesn’t have the authority. They can only request a waiver. The only person who can grant it is the commissioner or the TEA.
Q: Your brother’s here, Rick Cabrera, the KVIA anchor, a local star. Who else? And it seems obvious you’re glad to be here with them.
Very glad to be here, to be with my brother and my mother, niece and nephew. I’ve had a lot friends and acquaintances in El Paso over the years. Honestly, I’m not as excited about my brother being in the media. It’s probably inconvenient for him and slightly uncomfortable for me. If I had my choice, he’d be in a different career.
Q: How long has your family been here?
My brother’s been here 14 years. My mother’s been here three years.
Q: Where did your family come from?
I’m from Kingsville and Del Rio.
Q: What is your wife’s name and what does she do or what did she do before you came here?
Claudia. She’s a licensed social worker and teacher. She was a social worker meeting some of her clients and came to my school in East Austin, and I met her there in 1992. When I started law school, she did alternative certification to become a teacher after three years in social work. She started teaching the year I started law school. She stayed home while we were in Europe and started teaching again five years ago.
Yes, Eduardo is a sophomore in high school, Sofia is a freshman and Amalia is our baby, a third-grader.
Q: You’ve been a lawyer for 17 years. How long have you worked for school districts?
Now about 4½ to 5 years. That was the time when I dedicated myself to being a superintendent. Before that, I had my corporate legal career when I worked as a corporate executive, a corporate of sales, lawyer, all in the technology business.
Q: You were interested in getting into school work. Did you think you would land here?
This is my goal. Going back five or six years, I decided to give up my corporate legal career and to begin to work towards the goal of becoming a superintendent. I wasn’t particular about a city or a job at the time. My focus was on getting myself trained and to spend my time around school districts. I attended a leadership academy specifically focused on training superintendents to run urban school districts. At that point, when I felt I was ready, I decided to wait for the right opportunity.
This is the only job I’ve applied for, and I was lucky enough to obtain it. I initially had thought I would wait to apply until my freshman daughter was a senior. That had been our goal initially, but I looked at this job for the last year and a half. I applied in July because I just felt like it was the right place for me at the right time.
Q: This job originally opened for applications in October 2012. It seems unusual to keep a job open like that and then to fill it 11 months later.
Remember, the elected trustees had two interim superintendents. The third was Vernon Butler, who ended up bringing a lot of stability. At that point, they decided to work with a search firm to formally start the search process. They also created a community search communitee to help with that process. They created a job description and a timeline. That process started, and then in December 2012, almost in the middle of the process, the commissioner of education decided to remove the trustees and insert a board of managers.
In January, the elected board of trustees appealed to the Department of Justice, saying there was a violation of the Voting Rights Act because you were usurping the authority of the voters. At that point, there began a five-month fight between the Department of Justice, the commissioner of education and the elected trustees.
In the interim we had something else happen – an election. So, four new trustees were brought in, still in limbo. Then, in early May, the Department of Justice decided to give the commissioner what’s called pre-clearance and allowed (the commissioner) to remove the elected board. Just a couple of days later, I believe, the commissioner of education was here in El Paso, and at that point the board of managers met with the search firm. They looked at all the previous candidates and then rearranged – reorganized, let’s say – the job description to make it fit more what they thought the superintendent should be in terms of their needs analysis.
The search opened again in early May. I’d been following it the entire time, not just as an educator interested in education, as many were, but my brother lived here, and he and I would visit about it frequently. It was the Fourth of July weekend that I got to visit. My wife and I went to Ruidoso and drove around and spent some time in El Paso. Right after that, we made the decision to apply in July.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.