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Editorial: Is the legality of school bonuses rocket surgery?

It has been more than two years since the Public Education Department asked Attorney General Gary King to rule on the legality of nearly $1 million in bonuses paid to Central Consolidated School District employees for a couple of hours of training.

And in the time between then and now, allegations have surfaced of under-the-table payments from the western San Juan County district’s superintendent to board members before they voted on his contract renewal. In that time the district and its top administrators have been hit with multiple lawsuits alleging discrimination. In that time the district has been under fire for buying six vehicles for employees while budget shortfalls have cut school programs and employees.

And in that time Rio Rancho Public Schools has followed suit on the bonus front, handing out $500 to employees to mitigate the lack of raises, a move PED again warned appears to be unconstitutional.

There’s no telling if a timely bonus ruling from King on the Central Consolidated case would have prevented any of the subsequent questions. But at a minimum it would let the districts know there is state oversight of their actions.

King’s spokesman, Phil Sisneros, defends the years – yes, years – it is taking because “there oftentimes are a lot of people to interview; lots of times there’s a great deal of documents that have to be gone over.” But the reality is the AG should not have to interview the 990 Central Consolidated employees who got $1,000 each or get a forensic accountant to examine their pay stubs. He should simply use the law to determine if bonuses handed to public employees outside of their contracts violate the state constitution’s anti-donation clause.

In 2010 when Central Consolidated bonuses were given, then-interim Education Secretary Susanna Murphy, a Bill Richardson appointee, determined they were illegal. In January 2011 education chief Hanna Skandera concurred and asked King for his opinion.

More than two years later, as school spending dramas pile up, state taxpayers are still waiting.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.