DEMING – Every student at Deming High School got a laptop computer at the beginning of the 2015-16 school year.
“We are excited about bringing technology into the classroom and using it the same as in the business world,” celebrated DHS Principal Janean Garney at the time. Students were issued Lenovo 11E Yoga notebook-style computers, for which they paid a $30 usage fee.
It isn’t clear where the money went. According to a special audit of Deming Public Schools publicly released on Nov. 30, over $35,000 collected from students for computer fees by the school’s former Head Secretary was unaccounted for.
It was not the first time questions had arisen about the secretary’s handling of public money. District staff interviewed by the Jaramillo Accounting Group reported that “she was commonly purchasing new items, giving very expensive gifts to co-workers, drove a newer model Mustang.”
Rumors swirled that the Head Secretary was skimming money, not depositing checks, mishandling purchase cards and charge accounts; and yet, despite incident reports and complaints to administration as far back as May 2014, little to no intervention was undertaken by the Principal or the central office.
A shopping spree at Walmart
The earliest case examined by the special audit was a February 2014 excursion to Walmart with another employee, during which she used a district purchase card to buy three televisions: two for the school and one for her own home.
Later in the spring, the employee reported her suspicions. After questioning by Principal Garney, the Head Secretary claimed the store had made a mistake and she produced a cash refund rather than a store credit, as policy required.
An incident report was added to the secretary’s file, but there was no record of additional oversight or monitoring.
Mishandling receipts and checks
After the computer fee incident, reports continued to come in during the 2015-16 school year. The audit reports that teachers were “not receiving balance reports and sometimes when they requested Purchase Orders for items to be purchased out of their classroom account, the Purchase Orders would have the funds encumbered from another department, such as Maintenance.”
Sometimes the secretary would refuse to give receipts for cash, offering different excuses. In one case, an employee reported that she denied receiving cash from them, right to their face.
“She was also going to other areas where cash was held (such as the Activities Office) and asking them to cash checks she had received from parents instead of just depositing them,” the audit states. “She told these people that she needed to make change for the parent.”
Out of $256,000 that should have been deposited into the General Activities bank account over four years, only $110,000 in receipts were issued. Information is limited, however, because when auditors from the Jaramillo Group reported to Deming High School to do their research, they discovered that some receipt books had been shredded.
Additionally, the audit found evidence that the secretary “was using accounts with funds remaining to cover expenditure requests from teachers, who had negative balances in their activity accounts partially due to the potential skimming fraud scheme.”
In all, the special audit warned that the former Head Secretary may have used a skimming scheme and forgery to misappropriate approximately $130,000 during her four years as an employee.
That averages out to $32,500 per year.
Potential skimming of donations
During April and May of 2016, high school staff raised donations for the Celebration of Life, an annual fundraising campaign for Cancer Support of Deming and Luna County. The audit reports that the money was handled by the former Head Secretary, who was later questioned about the donations.
Joanna Costilla, Cancer Support’s Patient Advocate, told the Headlight that the charity received $350 from Deming High School by check in June of 2016, in addition to donations from other school-related groups such as the Junior ROTC.
Costilla said that a delay of a month or so in receiving donations from school groups is not unusual. She also said it is nothing unusual for schools to deliver donations in the form of money orders – or even cash.
“Theft of collections is a common fraud scheme,” the special audit warns.
According to the Deming Public Schools policy handbook, such fundraising requires Board approval: “Employees are prohibited from soliciting from children on school premises during school hours…The Deming Board of Education normally will not sanction district-wide charitable fundraising drives; however, application may be made to the Superintendent’s office for Board approval of such a drive in special circumstances.”
Yet the Head Secretary also collected donations for individuals undergoing medical treatment and funeral expenses for three different parties. When Deming High School set up a fund to assist the families of four students involved in a fatal car accident, she was in charge of those monies as well. Later, staff asked the Secretary why no deposits had been made to those accounts, and she offered conflicting explanations.
“It is unknown if any of the families ever received any of the funds raised,” the audit concludes.
Despite rumors, complaints, and at least one incident report, the employee was given opportunities to handle cash and deposits. She received positive employee evaluations that the audit says “did not reflect her performance or the numerous complaints brought to [Garney’s] and Administration’s attention.”
Central office even permitted her to “catch up” on some missing deposits, without disciplinary action.
She submitted her resignation in July of 2016, according to the audit, and completed her employment contract on August 19, 2016.
The Headlight reached out to Beatrice Armendariz, former Head Secretary at Deming High School, but did not make contact with her by press time. Former DHS Principal Janean Garney did not respond to requests for interviews for this report. Ray Trejo, a former Assistant Superintendent, declined to be interviewed.
No one has been arrested or charged with a crime related to the audit’s findings.
The office of the New Mexico State Auditor stated last week that since the special audit details “potential criminal violations” it would be forwarded to law enforcement agencies and the Sixth Judicial District Attorney’s office.
The special audit notes that Deming Public Schools has taken several corrective actions, including hires of a new Superintendent and finance director, and promoting a new Deming High School Principal.
On Wednesday, Superintendent Arsenio Romero confirmed that two district employees had been placed on administrative leave.
On Friday, Dec. 8, the Board of Education will meet in executive session at 1:00 p.m. at the Emmett Shockley Administration building, to be followed by a public meeting where action was expected on additional measures.
Algernon D’Ammassa can be reached at 575-546-2611 (ext. 2608) or firstname.lastname@example.org.
©2017 The Deming Headlight (Deming, N.M.)
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