Frustrated and helpless feeling Española School District officials and its Board president tried to answer tough questions last week about the 2018 audit report.
The audit had nine repeat findings and 11 new ones. Three of the new findings were material weaknesses. Those are big problems.
For those out of the news cycle, the District’s finances were taken over by the state Public Education Department in November 2016. The two principle problems were administrators ignoring procurement procedures and failure to follow a budget and match cash movements. This was primarily due to a few members on the previous board and superintendent using the District as its own piggy bank and job center.
Taxpayers and minority Board members sighed in relief as the state came in to repair our finances. But those sighs were quickly replaced by grunts of discontent as the state stumbled and our finances remained in chaos.
The phrase “state take-over” is a misnomer. To begin, the state just oversees what the District is doing. No one from the state physically comes to the District to repair anything. Instead they force the District to hire a Level II licensed business manager to “supervise” the District’s business office.
Lucky us, we get to pay that person $47,000 a month to set foot on District property one to three times each week. Originally that person was Maria Fidalgo. Her task was to go backwards and correct financial balances, reconcile accounts and match purchases with paperwork and payments.
She was also supposed to create a business plan to get the District out of hot water and on the straight and narrow. That would involve changing and improving practices and procedures, creating policies that have checks and balances and improving communication within the District when it comes to buying needed supplies and assets.
None of that happened. Witness the 2018 audit. It highlights many of the things Fidalgo and her replacement Bryan Runyon were supposed to be doing but have not yet executed.
All the school officials contacted for last week’s story on the audit had the same thing to say: the state’s representatives are not repairing things, they’re focusing on day to day operations, hovering like a house mother, slowing current financial processes and ignoring the original problem of three to five years ago.
As far back as January 2018 Superintendent Bobbie Gutierrez was lobbying the Department to replace Fidalgo, claiming there was no progress while costing the District $564,000 a year. Glacially, Department Budget Director David Craig replaced Fidalgo with Runyon, who’s been “on the job” since last fall.
Gutierrez said May 21 that Assistant Superintendent Denise Johnston authored the business plan, replete with timelines, solutions and key players’ duties. Gutierrez polished it and sent it on to Craig for his approval. Crickets.
We’re not sure if the best course of action is for the District to take back its finances. All of the administration and Board feel it is. At this point, it’s not the worst idea. On today’s Board we only have one of the problem children. He’s routinely held in check.
Former superintendent Eric Martinez is long gone. His cronies and other problem players are gone. There is a good team in the business office, led by Dan Romero. He’s highly qualified, educated and skilled, but his hands are tied.
A $564,000 annual expense would be lifted off taxpayers. Johnston and Gutierrez have a recovery plan and could implement it, left to their own devices.
New Mexico State Auditor Brian Colón’s letter that accompanied the audit made it clear, it’s an all hands on deck situation. However, that was the case three years ago and Department officials yawned and sent Fidalgo to come check on us weekly, ignoring her duties, staring at the fire hose as the house burned.
If the state is going to help, someone better get in here now (not next month) and show some significant progress quickly. Otherwise we’re probably better off cleaning up our own mess.