State auditor flags $20M in charter school funding

Public Education Department cannot account for money meant for administrative support, staff review finds

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The New Mexico Public Education Department can't explain how nearly $20 million intended for administrative support at charter schools was spent over five years, State Auditor Tim Keller said Tuesday.

Since 2006, when the Legislature amended the Charter School Act, the Public Education Department and school districts that have charter schools are allowed to withhold 2 percent of each charter school's program costs to provide administrative assistance to the schools. The specific type of assistance depends on the contract between the individual schools and the state or local agency that authorized them.

"The specifics about what training and support charter schools are receiving for their withheld funds are about as clear as mud," Keller said in a statement. "We found an unfortunate lack of transparency and accountability, which makes it difficult to see if these dollars are being used effectively."

A spokeswoman for the Public Education Department had a sharp reply.

"The auditor's report is misinformed -- he's a politician looking for cheap headlines," Lida Alikhani said in a statement.

Keller is running for mayor of Albuquerque.

"One of our top priorities," Alikhani said, "will always be to ensure that classroom spending is used properly and is well-accounted for. That's why we provide regular training to districts and charters in developing their budgets -- including an annual training session each year as districts and charters prepare for the upcoming school year. And when districts and charters need help or guidance in managing their budgets effectively, we are always happy to assist in any way we can."

The report by Keller's office said the audit left several questions unanswered, including how the money is being tracked and accounted for and whether it's going toward the the intended purpose.

Keller called on the Public Education Department to "revise outdated guidance on how the funds should be budgeted for, provide training to districts to strengthen the tracking of expenditures and conduct a comprehensive evaluation of whether the funds are being allocated efficiently and effectively."

One of the five school districts reviewed in the audit was Santa Fe Public Schools. The auditor's report says the district's only charter contract doesn't specifically list how the 2 percent earmarked for administrative costs will be used.

Instead, it outlines areas of general support to be provided.

The contract allows that money to be spent on computer software and licenses; special-education support; transportation; safety and security; teacher training; testing support; and human resource assistance.

Keller's staff will discuss the report Wednesday with the Legislative Education Study Committee at its meeting in Taos.

Alikhani's criticism of Keller wasn't the first time Gov. Susana Martinez's administration has attacked him over an audit report.

In 2015, after Keller's office uncovered evidence of then-Taxation and Revenue Secretary Demesia Padilla interfering with a former accounting client's tax audit, a spokesman for the governor said in a news release: "Tim Keller is looking less like a state auditor and more like the grand marshal of a publicity parade."

Padilla suddenly resigned in December after the state attorney general revealed it was investigating her and her husband over allegations she embezzled thousands of dollars from that client. A spokesman for Attorney General Hector Balderas said recently that "this complex investigation" is ongoing.

Contact Steve Terrell at 505-986-3037 or sterrell@sfnewmexican.com. Read his blog at www.santafenewmexica­n.com/roundhouse_roun­dup.

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