SAN BENITO — After more than two months of debate, the split school board is launching a forensic audit focusing on concerns including a delayed $40 million construction project and questions surrounding staff qualifications, board President Ramiro Moreno said Monday.
Now, Moreno is planning to call on board members to meet with the Fort Worth-based auditing firm of Weaver Tidwell to narrow the audit’s scope to try to keep its cost to about $150,000, he said.
“We can ask what to address within reason,” he said. “We need to prioritize.”
Forensic audits conducted for school districts in Rio Grande City, Weslaco and Donna have ranged in cost from $316,000 to $409,428, district records show.
“Knowing the way forensic audits have been transpiring, it’s almost impossible to keep it at $150,000,” Orlando Lopez, who served as the board’s past president, said. “It’s very obvious they want to follow what other school districts are doing.”
Construction project, staffing concerns
Moreno questioned delays in the project funded through a 2018 $40 million bond issue aimed at funding construction of a $20 million, 65,000-square-foot performing arts theater and a $5 million, 23,000-square-foot aquatics center launched in August 2019 with an 18-month timetable off Interstate 69.
So far, Joseph Palacios, the project’s manager, has completed construction of a $4.5 million, 10,000-square-foot indoor practice sports center featuring a 90-yard synthetic field next to Bobby Morrow Stadium.
As part of its contract, the district has paid Palacios, who serves as president of the Brighton Group, $1.25 million to serve as the project’s manager.
“Now we have concerns of the dealings of the previous board,” Moreno said. “We’re entertaining calls from the community — ‘Why is everything at a standstill?’ Three or four months ago, they said 18 more months and everything’s at a standstill. There are two buildings they haven’t started upright building.”
Since trustees voted 4-3 to request proposals from auditing firms in July, the call for the audit has widened the rift on the school board.
“It’s a witch hunt,” Lopez said. “It’s political. I just think it’s a waste of taxpayer dollars. I don’t think it’s necessary. I think Dr. (Nate) Carman has done a tremendous job as superintendent.”
Lopez, who pushed for the $40 million project, said the coronavirus pandemic has slowed down construction, sending costs of steel and other materials soaring.
“Everything was on the up-and-up. It’s all been done correctly,” he said. “It was told to us from the beginning it was going to take a while. COVID delayed a lot of things.”
Moreno also said he plans to request the auditors review staff qualifications.
“I’m not saying there’s wrongdoing but there may be areas of improvement in terms of hiring,” he said. “People get these jobs in higher places but are they qualified?”
However, Lopez said residents have expressed concern over hiring under the board’s new majority.
Auditors to ‘interview’ board members
Moreno said he plans to request auditors “interview” each board member before launching the audit, scrapping plans to go ahead with a three-member subcommittee’s review of the proposal.
“I want that forensic auditor to hear from all the board members,” he said. “When we ran for office, we ran on the platform that everything would be transparent.”
Board member Oscar Medrano said he wants the audit “to let all the board members see how we’re doing in the district.”
Like Moreno, board member Janie Lopez called for “transparency.”
“Experts conduct forensic audits to examine districts’ procedures,” she stated. “Districts and companies use audits to make any recommended improvements. Bottom line — it’s about accountability and transparency to taxpayers.”
Like Orlando Lopez, board member Ariel Cruz described the call for the audit as “a witch hunt.”
“Our finances have been good — the best they’ve been in years,” she said.