After more than a year of accusations Melrose Schools misused special education dollars, Superintendent Jamie Widner wants his school cleared of wrongdoing at a volume relative to which it was accused.
A week after the New Mexico Public Education Department issued a press release on findings of Tier II special education audits, Widner on Friday issued his own release noting that the audits cleared Melrose of wrongdoing.
"Our school was singled out because the data the PED used was incorrectly interpreted and I've asked for our school to be cleared throughout this process," Widner said. "On June 15, we were vindicated by the PED and given a report that clears our school."
An April 2011 audit of 34 schools and approximately 10,000 files included Melrose, Portales, Fort Sumner and Clovis districts. Portales was cleared, while Fort Sumner and Clovis were cited for minor reporting compliance issues.
A more intense second audit — performed by an independent auditor — was applied to the Melrose, Alamogordo, Cobre, Espanola, Gallup-McKinley, Grants-Cibola County, Las Cruces, Pojoaque Valley and Taos districts and the Nuestros Valores Charter School.
Widner said Melrose was red-flagged for the second round of audits by a misinterpretation of the school's enrollment numbers at the pre-kindergarten level.
On June 15, Widner received a letter from Hanna Skandera, Secretary-Designate of Education for the state, noting no findings against Melrose. It was the only school to have no findings from the Tier II audits.
"We are pleased to report that there are no special education findings for Melrose Public Schools in the items reviewed in the Tier II audit," the letter from Skandera said. "Thank you for your commitment to your students and working with us to ensure all students receive the services they deserve."
The same day, a press release from Skandera's office detailed findings of more than $4 million in questionable spending revealed by the audits, but made no mention of individual schools or districts. Observations ranged from budgeting discrepancies and sloppy filing to more egregious violations, including $16,000 for a conference at Disney World and $81,000 on a pair of Chevrolet Suburbans.
Widner's issue is that because the release did not clear Melrose, the average person would infer guilt by simply being one of the "nasty nine" districts. To discover Melrose's innocence, that same person would have needed to visit the department website, download the full report and find Melrose on the 40th page of a 67-page report.
As a result, Widner said, Melrose's guilt is inferred by association but its innocence is buried 40 pages into a 67-page report that requires a separate download from the PED website.
The PED on Friday did not address Widner's specific concern, but released a statement in response.
"We are grateful for the cooperation auditors received from the staff of Melrose schools," Public Information Officer Larry Behrens said in the statement. "In addition, PED will publicly take the position that among the items examined, auditors found no issues in Melrose schools and the district is to be commended for their diligence."