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APS officials suggest changes for worker background checks

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

Albuquerque Public Schools officials are recommending a number of state policy changes to address background check issues that rocked the district this summer.

The proposals are included in a new APS audit released by the state auditor Dec. 28, which found that APS failed to follow its own procedures when allowing then-Deputy Superintendent Jason Martinez to work several months without a background check.

Martinez resigned when it was revealed that he was facing child abuse charges in Denver. His trial ended in mistrial.

Among APS’ recommendations was that the roughly 2,000 APS employees hired before 1999 submit to a background check. These employees were grandfathered in – no check necessary – because they started work before the state’s background check rules went into effect.

The recommendations are APS’ response to the state auditor’s fiscal 2015 findings included in the same report.

Among the six findings from the auditor was APS’ failure to follow district background check policies in hiring Martinez, who resigned Aug. 18.

The audit did not name Martinez, but Sunalei Stewart, chief of staff for the Office of the State Auditor, confirmed that the finding relates to the former deputy superintendent.

Martinez worked at APS for a few months but never submitted to a background check, which was legally required before he began the job.

Then-Superintendent Luis Valentino, who hired Martinez, stepped down Aug. 31 after three closed-door board meetings about his future.

The state auditor faulted APS’ “management override” of existing district policy for allowing Martinez to work without a background check.

Stewart said the district has internal controls to ensure compliance with applicable policies; it just failed to follow them.

“In this instance, those controls were overridden in the sense that the required procedures were not followed by APS,” he said.

In its response to the auditor’s finding regarding Martinez, APS said corrective action was the responsibility of the assistant superintendent for human resources.

It went on to say that the district had sent the following recommendations to the state Public Education Department:

  • Mandate that all employees hired prior to 1999 submit to a background check.
  • Require that all public school employees be subject to periodic random background checks.
  • Change state statute to speed up the process of submitting fingerprints for the background check.
  • Stop allowing schools to use old PED background checks to fulfill their own background check requirements. State statute says these checks can be used as long as they were completed within the last two years.
  • Add statutory language that “all public school employees” must report felony convictions to the school district and PED. Currently, only PED gets the reports.

PED spokesman Robert McEntyre said the department has not received anything from APS.

Those proposals don’t directly address Martinez’s case, which was the focus of the audit finding.

But the final one does. It says APS’ assistant superintendent for human resources has requested that the board consider a new independent process for reporting a complaint against the superintendent that does not involve the board or APS personnel “so as to avoid any form of retaliation.”

Karen Rudys, the interim assistant superintendent for human resources, has said through her attorney that she had spoken to Valentino about Martinez’s failure to complete the background check multiple times and has threatened legal action if she faced retaliation for coming forward.

Valentino has disputed that, saying he was only told of Martinez’s incomplete background check twice and pressed Martinez to take care of it.

In a statement made through APS spokesman Rigo Chavez, Rudys said the district continues to work with Attorney General Hector Balderas’ office on background checks and will go over a plan to rectify any problems.

Balderas launched an investigation of APS’ background check system shortly after Martinez resigned and released a report in December that highlighted a number of issues, including the estimated 2,270 unchecked pre-1999 hires.

The state Auditor’s Office also warned districts to comply with background check rules in a November risk advisory.

In the coming weeks, PED will release the results of its own review of background checks at all of the state’s school districts and charter schools.

Following the APS issue with Martinez, Gov. Susana Martinez requested that PED complete the review in conjunction with the Department of Public Safety.

State Rep. David Adkins, R-Albuquerque, has also said he will address APS’ unchecked employees during the upcoming legislative session.