November 12, 2015

Audit: Former Española principal misused $12K in student candy money

A report from State Auditor Tim Keller released Thursday takes a former Española Public School District principal to task for allegedly misusing more than $12,000 from a candy fundraiser last year.

ThinkingThough the audit doesn’t list the former principal’s name, NM Political Report has learned it’s referring to Norma Lara, who used to head San Juan Elementary.

“In addition, the same Principal was found to be pocketing money from game gate fund wherein she was responsible for maintaining certain gate receipts during the games,” the audit reads. “The receipts turned in to the athletic director were found to be off sequence.”

Lara, who is now a first grade teacher at Pablo Roybal Elementary in Pojoaque, did not return a handwritten message sent to her classroom this morning.

Specifically, the audit states that it examined records from 10 teachers who participated in the fundraiser, which was meant to raise money for student activity funds, along with Lara’s records. None of the teachers’ records matched Lara’s.

The audit notes that Lara was “the key person for the fundraiser” and estimates that she misused $12,681.

The Auditor’s Office has referred the case to New Mexico State Police and the Santa Fe District Attorney. Former Española Superintendent Daniel Trujillo first brought the concerns to the State Auditor.

The audit also found a 2004 tax fraud felony conviction against Lara. Lara, who pleaded guilty to fraud and an attempt to evade her taxes, was sentenced to one year in prison and 10 months probation. Her sentence, however, was suspended and she avoided time behind bars.

The Española Public School District first hired Lara as assistant principal at Carlos Vigil Middle School in 2005. During that time, the school district reached out to the state Public Education Department about whether the felony would affect Lara’s teaching license.

The audit says that the education department “informed the District that, since the conviction did not involve children, the teacher’s license remained active and the District was free to hire the individual.”

“Whether or not this advice was consistent with PED’s policies, it does not adequately convey the possible risks that a fraud conviction may pose with respect to the protection of District resources,” the audit reads. “Although such a conviction would not necessarily be a disqualifying factor in every instance, the District’s policies and procedures should contemplate and account for these risks.”

The Education Department’s licensing practices have come under heavy scrutiny in recent months. An investigation by the Las Vegas Optic revealed that a former licensure bureau chief faked his credentials to qualify as superintendent of Mora Independent School District. That superintendent, Charles Trujillo, has since resigned.

A former deputy superintendent at Albuquerque Public Schools was on the job for months without a license and without a background check. NM Political Report found that the man, Jason Martinez, was facing a trial for sexual assault of a child in Colorado. The trial last month ended in a hung jury and the Denver District Attorney’s office indicated they would retry the case.

NM Political Report left a voicemail at Española Superintendent Bobbie Gutierrez’ office Thursday morning, which went unreturned. Public Education Department spokesman Robert McEntyre also did not return a voicemail and email left around the same time.

Española school district management said in the audit that it had since updated its student activity forms, policies and procedures for fundraising practices and applied them to staff training. It added that the district conducts routine financial audits of its fundraising activities.

“The dishonest principal no longer works for the district,” the management’s response reads. “Further investigation and disciplinary action is pending and being reviewed by the PED and the New Mexico State Auditor’s Office.”

Read the State Auditor’s report below:

OSA Letter to Espanola Public Schools (11!2!15) (1) by New Mexico Political Report