‘Jaw-dropping’ allegations in Weslaco ISD forensic audit

Weslaco school board members discussed the results of a forensic audit Monday covering a five-year span of the district’s operations that highlighted inconsistencies and alleged nepotism in the district’s hiring processes, suspicious circumstances related to the repair of its bus fleet and deficiencies in the school district’s operational structure.

The district retained Weaver and Tidwell LLP to perform the audit early this year. High level resignations and reassignments followed the audit’s launch, including the resignations of Superintendent Priscilla Canales and Director of Athletics & District Facilities Oscar Riojas, along with the reassignment of Human Resources Director Melva Segura.

Auditors analyzed over 2 million emails for 27 current and former district employees, along with financial records, board minutes and reams of other information. They also conducted interviews with current and former personnel.

The final cost for that audit was approximately $325,000, a Weaver representative said Monday.

The two-part, 129-page report is posted on the district’s website.

Much of the report describes the district consistently under-budgeting for awards and incentives, a friendly relationship between the district’s transportation director and a repair company that received a significant boost in bus repair business after the transportation director assumed his position, and instances during personnel hirings where the board or administrators appeared to push for certain candidates despite them lacking qualifications or hiring committees recommending other candidates.

“From our investigation of the District’s hiring practices going back to September 2014, we identified a pattern of micromanagement by the Board to influence the hiring process, especially during the 2014 – 2016 time period,” it reads. “We observed instances where the Board rejected a candidate recommended by the Interviewing Committee and Superintendent, oftentimes approving a less qualified candidate instead.”

After the board transferred Melva Segura to the HR department, the report says she appeared to have acted as a “gatekeeper” for candidates the board assessed and may have violated the district’s policies against nepotism.

Trustee Jesse Trevino called information in the report “jaw-dropping.”

“This is years and years and years of manipulation that’s been going on,” he said. “That’s going to take some time to fix.”

Trevino and Trustee Marcos De Los Santos both brought up pay grade reclassifications that resulted in substantial salary increases but seemed to lack justification for a reclassification.

“There’s no answer for how somebody … with just a couple years out of high school and they’re already at the $70,000 range,” De Los Santos said. “And yet we have teachers that have worked countlessly for decades, 10, 20 or 30 years, and they’ll never see that pay. So we’ve got big problems.”

The report details the district spending almost $5 million on awards and incentives over the past five years — mostly on T-shirts and apparel for students and staff — despite budgeting $1.5 million less for that category over that time period.

It also described unqualified or lesser qualified individuals being hired over candidates whose resumes better fit job descriptions.

“We spent a lot of money sometimes in certain areas that we shouldn’t have, but I think this is a very valuable tool for the taxpayers because it highlights the fact that there’s always been a stigma in Weslaco that you have to know somebody to get in,” De Los Santos said.

De Los Santos called for less board involvement on day-to-day issues and more board transparency.

Dr. Jaime Rodriguez was notably the only trustee present for the discussion who isn’t serving his first term. He defended his tenure since 2017, and said the audit was something to learn and move forward from.

“But to act like the sky is falling and we’re a horrible district and Weslaco ISD is not the right choice — that’s wrong, to me that’s wrong,” Rodriguez said.

Interim Superintendent Criselda “Cris” Valdez said the district is working on improving operations based on the auditors’ recommendations, specifically referencing quadrupling the size of interview committees in an attempt to make hiring more equitable.

That new system has been received as fair and just, Valdez said.

“It’s the action of a few that got us here,” she said. “And so now we close the chapter. We close that chapter. And as your interim superintendent and as the executive team sitting here in the audience, to all of those watching remotely, those here in the audience: Weslaco ISD pledges to move forward.”