Audits displease area superintendents

Liliana Castillo

Area superintendents were not pleased with the way the state Public Education Department handled an audit process last month.

The PED audited 34 districts across the state to identify reporting issues.

What sparked the audit: Over the last year, the number of new students in New Mexico increased by about 1 percent and the same time, the number of funding units associated with those students increased 116 percent.

Most of the inconstancies found were related to special education students.

After initial audits, Fort Sumner and Clovis Municipal Schools were cited for minor reporting compliance issues along with 12 other districts.

Nine districts were identified as needing a more expansive audit, including Melrose Municipal Schools.

Fort Sumner Superintendent Patricia Miller called the audits a “witch hunt.”

“It was unprofessional,” Miller said. “They approached it as if people were indeed trying to cheat the system. That has not been my observation and I’ve been in education for over 20 years. That’s now how people in public education work. They go into education because they’re altruists.”

Responding to the “witch hunt” charge, PED and Higher Education Department Public Information officer Larry Behrens said the results are more important than upsetting school administrators.

“Every student in every district deserves the full amount of funding to which they are entitled. When one district gets more than their fair share of the dollars, it hurts students statewide. This audit is about making sure there is fairness for students and taxpayers,” he said.

Miller said the PED insisted that the school districts were submitting poor data.

“That’s not happening. They’re saying we’re doing a bad job drawing data. They’re not admitting any fault on their end. The finger pointing is only going one way,” Miller said.

Miller said 60 percent of the files the PED asked for were not for developmentally delayed students.

“The PED did a very poor job in their information draw,” she said. “And that’s part of the reason we were even tapped in this audit.”

Miller said the state had an incorrect count for the number of 3-year-olds Fort Sumner reported last year.

“One 30 minute phone call would have completely eradicated the need for an audit of our DD (developmentally delayed) preschoolers, instead of consuming all these taxpayer dollars and resources,” Miller said.

Miller and Melrose Superintendent Jamie Widner said in order to give the PED what they wanted, they would have had to come in on the weekend and come in early on a Monday. Miller chose to call in her staff over Easter weekend and Widner did not.

Miller said she brought in two half-day subs and a speech therapist on the Monday after Easter to help gather the information. For five hours, a staff person had to watch the fax machine as they faxed data to the PED.

“That’s a lot of resources and long distance phone charges the whole time. They’re not calculating or quantifying how much costs are being incurred in this witch hunt,” Miller said.

Widner said he didn’t understand why Melrose received a telephone audit over an on-site audit when PED staff had to drive through Melrose to perform on-site audits at Clovis and Portales.

Widner said he found out his district was being audited from a fellow superintendent.

“I didn’t get the initial e-mail. We go through the weekend thinking we’re not on it (the list),” he said.

Widner said when trying to fax documents to the PED, the line was constantly busy.

“I think they had incorrect data to start with to get us on the list,” Widner said.

Widner said he believes the Technical Assistance for Excellence in Special Education group based out of Utah that has been charged with conducting further audits in nine districts will be tasked with finding issues.

“I think that will be their charge, to find something,” Widner said. “They’re going to come in and look at every special education record. They’re never going to apologize for this. There will never be a retraction.”

Widner said the message from the PED was clear.

“We’re the bad guys and we’re trying to steal from the state and I believe that’s how this is lining up to be,” he said. “I don’t feel like we’re trying to steal money from the state. I feel like we’re running a school the best we know how.”

Behrens said the state department approached the audits with sensitivity in mind.

“We said from the very beginning of the audit that we were certain 34 districts were not ‘gaming the system.’ From day one we were sensitive to districts time and resources which is why Public Education Department auditors went through 10,000 files in just 10 days. The measures for which districts would face further auditing had nothing to do with their staffing levels over the holiday weekend,” Behrens said.