Legislative auditors question spending by school districts on vehicles, support services

By By Barry Massey, AP
Friday, November 20, 2009

Audit: public schools lax in financial management

SANTA FE, N.M. — Legislative auditors have faulted poor financial management by school districts for allowing questionable spending of public money, including the purchase of a $91,000 tow truck.

Auditors for the Legislative Finance Committee examined five of the state’s 89 districts, concluding that local school boards and district administrators need better oversight of school finances.

The auditors also questioned whether some districts were taking unfair advantage of a provision that provides them with hundreds of thousands of dollars in extra state aid for small schools. In the Las Vegas City school district, two small elementary schools are separated by a parking lot. But auditors said they shouldn’t be considered separate small schools for purposes of state financing. The district disagreed in a written response that was part of the audit report.

Public schools account for the largest portion of the state’s budget — more than 40 percent — and the audit will provide ammunition for lawmakers who say schools must share in spending cuts to balance the state budget.

Schools escaped deep cuts this year when the Legislature met last month to plug a $650 million hole in the state budget. However, the state faces more budget problems next year and lawmakers are expected to consider more spending cuts and possible tax increases when they meet in January for a 30-day session.

“Everyone is going to have to share in the pain of cutting government and cutting education as well,” said Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, a Santa Fe Democrat and the committee chairman.

Auditors on Thursday criticized lax credit card policies by districts, which allowed thousands of dollars to spent on meals by administrators and catered lunches for staff.

The Bernalillo Public Schools spent $91,000 for a tow truck that auditors said was unnecessary. It was sold less than a year later to Los Alamos Public Schools for $75,000. The district also spent $112,000 for three sport utility vehicles for its transportation program administrators, but auditors said they were purchased from an out-of-state dealer at a price that appeared too high. Superintendent Barbara Vigil-Lowder said the district was trying to tighten its financial controls.

Also covered by the LFC audit were Aztec, Bloomfield and West Las Vegas school districts.

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