APS audits raise questions about students’ cash

Albuquerque Public Schools

ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – When auditors dug into the management of the Albuquerque High School activity fund last year, they found lots of problems with the way students’ money was being spent.

Explanations for those problems were in shorter supply.

For example: Yvette Jaramillo Barnwell, the school’s then-full-time activities director, couldn’t explain why Albuquerque High was charging a $20 “activity fee” for all students to register at school – a practice that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the Albuquerque Public Schools district.

And Barnwell couldn’t tell auditors why, in the two most recent school years, the amount she had turned over from the unusual fee was more than $18,000 short of where enrollment totals at Albuquerque High should have pegged it.

Barnwell also had no answers for $500 worth of receipts found in her desk drawer that couldn’t be traced to bank deposits. The receipts were from student activity money.

And she left auditors guessing as to the identities of two adults who, along with Barnwell and an APS teacher, accompanied seven students to the second inauguration of President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C. last year.

“Where are those approval forms? Did they get background checks? I don’t know,” school board member Kathy Korte said in an interview this week. “They should’ve.”

Four adults and seven students comprised the Albuquerque High delegation to the nation’s capital for the inauguration. Barnwell paid the $19,883 tab for the trip entirely from the school activity fund. No one spent a penny of personal money.

In recent years, routine APS audits examining activity funds have turned up numerous examples of misspent money, lack of oversight and accountability and even potential crimes.

The money in the funds is supposed to come from kids holding bake sales, silent auctions and other traditional fundraising means. In a cash-strapped school district, it is supposed to be spent on activities students may not otherwise have a chance to participate in.

There to manage the money are adults – in some cases APS employees and, in others, contracted coaches for groups such as cheerleading squads and speech and debate clubs.

The most recent round of audits, including the one at Albuquerque High, was no different. District officials signed off last month on audits for 86 schools from all corners of the district: from La Cueva and Rio Grande high schools to Eisenhower Middle School and Mitchell Elementary.

The documents were released to KRQE New 13 this week after a public records request.

Auditors gave about half the schools commendable ratings for the management of their activities funds, the records show. Several schools received an average rating, and six were rated “non-compliant.”

Auditors launched full investigations at five schools, including Albuquerque High. The findings at those schools included possible fraud, waste and abuse. Auditors recommended stricter rules in many cases. In others, auditors pointed out that the activity funds should have been protected by existing rules that principals, activity directors, bookkeepers and activity sponsors failed to follow.

The audits say there are rules in place that govern activities funds at APS schools, but the audits revealed critical lapses in the way APS rules are followed and enforced. That leaves the school board little recourse when wrongdoing is uncovered. And it leaves the student funds with little oversight.

“I would say it’s a pretty common problem, and there are breakdowns in our system no doubt that we need to figure out,” said Korte, who also is chairwoman of the APS audit committee.

An inadvertent text

Through all the problems auditors were digging up in the Albuquerque High activity fund, Barnwell was able to keep her job.

“I was placed on leave — paid leave — on Sept. 16, and I resigned at the end of December,” she said. “But it didn’t have anything to do with money.”

Barnwell said questions from KRQE News 13 on Tuesday marked the first time she’d heard of the audit.

She refused to answer a question about the January trip to Washington, D.C. for President Obama’s inauguration.

Barnwell confirmed that her resignation followed an inappropriate text message she inadvertently sent to the Albuquerque High principal, who is African American.

Asked whether that text contained a racial slur, Barnwell refused to comment further.

“You can get all that information from APS,” she said, adding that she now works for a charter school she didn’t name.

Barnwell said she would call KRQE News 13 back after she talked to her lawyer Tuesday afternoon. She didn’t.

Eddie Soto, associate superintendent for secondary education at APS, said Barnwell may have broken the law.

“It could potentially wind up in that sort of a scenario,” Soto told News 13.

He said APS is still working to track down the $18,000 discrepancy in the unusual “activity fee” that Albuquerque High’s principal and the district allowed Barnwell to collect. But the district hasn’t asked the school or its interim activity director to stop charging students to register for school.

“But we are going to speak with the principal and his administrative team and find out why this fee, why continue it, what’s the necessity for it and make some determinations from that,” Soto said.

The personal account

Albuquerque High wasn’t alone.

At La Cueva, auditors uncovered gaping holes in the way APS tracks activities money and student travel. The school apparently had no idea, for example, that Taylor Bui, the 20-year-old coach of the La Cueva speech and debate team, took a group of students on a 4,000-mile trip.

It was February 2013, and Harvard University was hosting a speech and debate tournament. Bui, who had only been gone from La Cueva as a student for two years at the time, took 10 students to the event, according to the audit report.

One student’s parent later contacted the La Cueva principal to say he had received a call from American Airlines about an unpaid fee. The parent told the principal he had paid Bui $1,000 for the ticket.

“When an airline comes back at a school and says, ‘you still owe us money,’ there’s something wrong with that,” Korte said.

Bui, who is now a UNM student, did not return emails or telephone messages seeking comment.

How much money the trip to Harvard cost — and where the money came from — remain a mystery. That’s partly because Bui handled all the money through his personal bank account.

Auditors were unable to reach Bui to get answers about why he submitted no purchase orders for the trip, which left the school with no way to determine whether the students had permission from their parents to go to Massachusetts or whether any other chaperones accompanied the group.

So the auditors sent APS police to speak with Bui. He agreed with officers that he “did not follow APS policies, procedures and practices related to student activity funds and travel,” the audit report says.

No charges were filed against Bui. Officers didn’t even write a report. And the school district never got any of the records they had sought from Bui.

“Due to the lack of documentation, we are unable to determine if there was fraud, waste or abuse regarding the collection and disbursement of funds,” the report says.

Korte said: “I frankly don’t even understand why this person is still the coach of this team.”

Indeed, Bui still has his contract coaching position with La Cueva, according to the audit report.

“We have taken the necessary steps to prevent anything like that from ever happening again at La Cueva or any other of our schools,” Soto said, adding that Bui is now under the supervision of the school’s principal and its activities director. “So I think we’re getting on top of this one a little bit better.”

Left holding the bag

The cheer coach at Rio Grande High School presented auditors with a different set of challenges.

According to the audit report for that school’s activity fund, the coach spent more than $32,000 on uniforms in 13 months. The problem: she didn’t have enough money in the activity fund to cover the expenses. That meant late charges, which ran in excess of $1,500, and service charges that left the activity account in arrears.

“All outstanding bills have been paid,” Rio Grande administrators wrote in their response to auditors. “Admin is transferring money into the cheer account so that parents are not paying bills that their student did not incur.”

Like at the other schools, the Rio Grande cheer coach could not produce records to back up her expenditures. According to the audit report, she told school officials the records had been stolen from her car during a break-in.

“In that particular case you had a principal saying: ‘you don’t have this much money, you can only spend x amount,’ and a contract coach spent it anyway,” Korte said.

Auditors blasted Rio Grande administrators for lack of oversight, suggesting that they toughen policies and enforce training requirements for anyone who handles student money.

After all, as Korte said, it’s money that comes from students “selling candies or selling roses or what have you.”

The Rio Grande cheer coach was allowed to resign in September — after a student was found in possession of the coach’s keys.

Tough choices

The audits point to “proof that we need to do things differently,” said Soto, the APS official.

“These audits always demonstrate to us that we have to work on cleaning up those things that we’ve put in motion because, oftentimes we find that we’ve got errors along the way,” he said.

Korte said the audits show structural flaws and problems caused by a lack of resources within APS.

Bookkeepers, who are responsible for collecting money from activity directors and contract coaches, make $9 or $10 an hour, she said. And the turnover rate for those positions is high.

“And again, there goes that other problem of: who does that in the school?” Korte said. “Which APS personnel will oversee the contract coaches? We don’t have really anybody who can do that.”

But cases like La Cueva, Rio Grande and Albuquerque High create liability for APS, she said.

“At the end of the day, this is about who holds the bag if somebody doesn’t follow the rules,” Korte said. “It’s the district, the school, and that means taxpayers, and we can’t let that happen … We have got to get a handle on this stuff.”

One possible fix: place caps on the amount of money activity directors can raise.

“So, there has to be that fine balance of: we want you to have these experiences, but on the other hand, do we set a cap for middle schools as to how much you can fund raise for an activity?” Korte said. “That gets down into the mud where, boy, we’re gonna get a lot of push back on that … I don’t have the answers, I don’t think any of us do. But it is obviously a serious enough issue that you’ve got thousands and thousands of dollars that are being expended, and not all of those monies are accounted for.”

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