PSJA school board to solicit proposals for forensic audit

Pharr-San Juan-Alamo school board members voted Monday to solicit proposals for a firm to conduct a forensic audit.

The board also discussed the employment contract of Superintendent Jorge Arredondo, who referred questions to district attorney Ben Castillo, who said the board took no action on that front and declined to comment on the item.

Board President Cynthia Gutierrez said after the meeting that she asked for the audit to be discussed. She said the board won’t specify scope of work or time frame for the prospective audit till it finds a firm.

“I think it’s a good way to know where we stand in all of the departments, and that way any deficiencies that we find, we can correct,” she said.

Gutierrez didn’t specify what particularly she hoped the audit to look into. She said the new trustees being on the board prompted the decision to appraise the district with an audit.

“We as a board, we’re gonna sit down and discuss which areas we want to focus on,” she said. “Favorites always in other places have been HR and procurement. We just want to make sure that all the processes are being done correctly and that moving forward — especially having a new board — we know exactly where we stand.”

That new board marks a significant power shift after the November elections.

The ouster of two board incumbents by freshmen trustees Yolanda Castillo and Diana Serna gives the board’s longstanding minority faction — Carlos Villegas and Gutierrez — a likely voting majority.

Just Thursday, the board elected Gutierrez as its president. Villegas is now vice president, with Serna and Castillo serving as secretary and treasurer respectively.

Board politics at the district have been particularly bitter between Gutierrez and Villegas and their frequent board opponents. On at least one occasion, an argument devolved into a shouting match. Gutierrez and Villegas generally advocated for improved conditions for employees and questioned district spending. They were almost always outvoted and usually their efforts went nowhere.

That, Gutierrez said Thursday, is about to change.

“For two years, we have waited for this opportunity,” she told the crowd at that meeting. “For the opportunity to do what is right for you guys. To be able to have an agenda that reflects our hearts, and an agenda that reflects the needs of our community.”

When forensic audits pop up on a school board agenda in the Rio Grande Valley, the chance of controversy and significant change is high.

Sometimes, the fallout of critical audits is accompanied by the exit of district administrators — or even superintendents.

An audit’s description of fiscal mismanagement and employee errors in a 2017 audit of the Donna school district prompted the suspension of its superintendent and increased state oversight.

After a power shift on the Weslaco ISD board in 2020, that district launched a forensic audit that found questionable practices in WISD’s transportation and human resources departments.

The district’s superintendent quit not long before the audit’s findings became public and the board voted to terminate two high level administrators.

When a new superintendent finally took the reins at the district after at least a year of controversy, the audit’s findings prompted him to reorganize the district’s entire administration.

In September, the San Benito CISD school board received the results of a forensic audit, focusing largely on purchasing and procurement practices, grants and expenditures.

That district’s superintendent opted to take the superintendency at another district during the audit process.