Last-Minute Add-Ons for School

 

In one of her last acts at the Career Academic and Technical Academy charter school, then-principal Glee Hare spent more than $100,000 in public money to pave the school parking lot and surround it with a wrought-iron fence, district invoices show.

The spending is of particular concern to Albuquerque Public Schools, because the property is privately owned. State law says privately owned facilities cannot be improved with public funds.

APS officials discussed the move at a recent finance committee meeting, where they also reviewed the school’s overall fiscal situation. The school is about $28,600 in the red for overall spending, according to school records.

APS revoked the school’s charter in September after an audit found problems that included nepotism and violations of the procurement code and the Open Meetings Act. The school remains open, although its governing board was dissolved and is now under the governance of the APS school board. APS board members have discharged Hare, and the school has a new principal.

Hare declined to comment on the fence, and APS officials said they have not been given an explanation as to why it was built. A memo on the fence invoice says “student safety and school security.”

Debra Curry, who headed the CATA governing board, could not be reached for comment.

Invoices show the fence cost about $38,800 and the paving cost about $68,700.

The winning bid proposal and purchase orders for the fence are all dated after Sept. 21, the date the school’s charter was revoked. Other bid proposals are dated in late August, before the charter was revoked but after the audit had been done. The paving invoices are dated the day of the revocation.

APS school board member Lorenzo Garcia condemned the fence and paving, saying a landlord is benefiting from sparse public education dollars. He called on lawmakers to improve state laws on charter school buildings and ensure such improvements don’t happen in the future.

The school building is owned by a company called AEG Investors LLC. A company with the same name is registered with the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission, although APS officials said rent checks are sent to a California address.

CATA is near Osuna and Jefferson NE and serves about 140 students in grades nine through 12. It has small classes, project-based learning and a requirement that students take dual-enrollment college classes.

APS officials raised concerns about the school’s academic program in recent weeks after an audit of transcripts found that only a small fraction of seniors were on track to graduate and that credits had been granted for loosely supervised independent study.

The future of the school is uncertain.

APS Superintendent Winston Brooks has said he does not want to close it, for fear students might drop out. He has considered either transforming CATA into an APS magnet school or re-chartering it under a different governing board.

The building lease will expire in July, and Brooks said he is hesitant to continue it because he does not want APS to get “into the business of leasing buildings.” So the school will likely change locations.

APS Chief Financial Officer Don Moya said the district should dig up the fence and move it to a new location if the school vacates its current building.

Building and property issues have been raised at the school before. The initial audit of the school raised questions about improvements made to the building in 2007, when the charter first opened.

The audit said CATA’s governing board voted to accept an “advance” of $80,000 from the landlord to bring the building up to code by adding a boys’ bathroom, a ramp or elevator and a revolving door between the art and photo rooms.

At the time, the school’s board voted to pay lease payments of $14,000 a month until the $80,000 was paid back, then reduce the lease to $12,000 a month.

In a written response to the audit findings, a CATA representative wrote that the renovations did not violate state law, because “the landlord made the improvements at the landlord’s cost and, as permitted under the law, charged back its increased costs as monthly rent to the school.”

Michael Vigil, who heads the New Mexico Coalition for Charter Schools, said that strategy is common for charters when they are starting. Vigil said charters are in a difficult position of being unable to legally improve their buildings, even if the improvements would benefit students.

State law requires charters to be in public buildings by 2015, which Vigil said will help them gain control of their facilities.

“Then they can start to renovate or do some changes to the building that would make it more suitable to the charter,” Vigil said.

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