Records: Tribal school board seriously wasted funds | KOB 4
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Records: Tribal school board seriously wasted funds

Chris Ramirez
April 26, 2018 10:22 PM

ALAMO NAVAJO, N.M. – It’s arguably one of the poorest school districts in New Mexico, with limited funds to educate 347 students from kindergarten through high school. But that hasn’t stopped the Alamo Navajo Nation School Board from misusing those scarce funds, as KOB 4 Investigates discovered.

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The Alamo Navajo Indian Reservation is a carve-out of the Navajo Nation, sitting northwest of Socorro and just north of Magdalena. Many homes in the region still lack utility hookups, much less modern conveniences like Wi-Fi and cell phone service. The importance of education is especially important in communities like these.

KOB discovered that in six months, the four-member board ran up a travel bill totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars and proved money has been misdirected by board members instead of going to students.

“We’re registered voters from the Navajo Nation. Why is it they are treating us like this?” asked John Apachito, a local parent who stood outside the school board’s most recent meeting on Tuesday along with other parents and district employees.

They had been kicked out of what was a public meeting.

Pages and pages of financial reports obtained by KOB 4 Investigates weave a story that shows the four elected men who make up the school board – Stephen Apache, Bucky Apache, Hector Guerro and Edward Padilla – are abusing their authority.

District internal reports show that in the latter months of 2017 and early 2018, those four board members spent nearly $200,000 of district funds on travel. They went to Las Vegas, Orlando and Washington, D.C., and took out thousands in cash advances to drive to Albuquerque, Farmington and Window Rock.

While traveling, they ran a scheme with receipts. For example, after returning from Orlando, Bucky Apache turned in an Uber receipt for $6.97 for reimbursement and signed his name on it.

Then Stephen Apache turned in the same receipt with his signature. Padilla did the same.

Each board member got reimbursed on one receipt. Financial records from the district show that receipt shell game was repeated on multiple trips.

“They are spending a hell of a lot of money for no reason. For their own personal travel,” Bill Hererra Sr. said.

Additionally, while traveling, the four men expected the district to pay for their dining and entertainment. When Guerro stayed at Paris Las Vegas, he charged the district for room fees, which would include pay-per-view movies or items from the hotel’s mini-bar – usually stocked with snacks and alcohol.

The expenses didn’t stop there. Guerro charged the district $146 for a Las Vegas show, also spending $100 at a buffet on Dec. 14, 2017. The next day, a reimbursement receipt showed he charged the district a total of $222 on food at four different restaurants.

In total, Guerro ran up a tab of $1,232 at Paris Las Vegas and demanded the district pay for it all.

KOB 4 Investigates found school board members also claimed mileage reimbursements to be in two places at once. For example, Bucky Apache asked for $377 for a drive to Window Rock on Sept. 6, 2017, but he also claimed he went to Santa Fe on the same day, receiving $307 for that trip.

An email from a high-ranking district official obtained by KOB states the board approved itself a $1,000 payout.

“The board felt that they were experiencing a shortage of funds due to campaign expenses,” the email states. “One had funeral expenses to pay for.”

Administrative staff wrote in a different email, “ignoring all ethics and training, the board gave themselves a $1,000 bonus to purchase appropriate clothing.”

When administrative staff objected, the school board overruled them. The administrative staff knew the payouts were illegal, and signed each check with the message: “Signed under duress.”

SEEKING ANSWERS

At the top of each school board agenda for the district, the message “No public comment” is written, prompting frustration among members of the community.

“We can’t even voice our concerns,” said Sarah Apache, one of those community members.

KOB 4 Investigates experienced what happens to people when the board is asked questions aimed at holding them accountable. While at a regularly scheduled public meeting, the board called an executive session and cleared out the room.

The board and its lawyer wanted to speak just with KOB. They ordered KOB’s cameras out of the room, but held reporter Chris Ramirez inside. Ramirez was transparent with the board, explaining the concerns the 4 Investigates Team had found.  Ramirez even agreed to meet the board that same day for a formal interview.

The members of the board refused the requests, and when Ramirez asked KOB’s photojournalist to return to the room, the board and its attorney refused to answer any questions while showing the KOB crew out the door. 

‘THEY CHASE US OUT’

The school board keeps a security team at each meeting, adding to the community’s concerns.

“It’s true,” Beverly Vicente said when asked if the school board may be using bully tactics to withhold the truth. “They can’t even listen to our concerns about what is going on on this campus. They are pushing us out every time there is a meeting. If we say something wrong, they chase us out. The security comes and tells us to leave.”

Tribal leaders are aware of the problems. Alamo Chapter President Buddy Mexicano’s board wrote a scathing resolution about the school board’s members.  It reads in part, “School board officials have violated their oath of office and governing ethics through malfeasance of office through seeking and receiving personal and financial gain through extensive non-essential travel, awarding themselves pay adjustments that far exceed and was 10 times that of any pay adjustment for the employees.”

When asked if the board is abusing its power and if it is defrauding schools, Mexicano has the same one-word answer: “Yes.”

Once KOB returned from the Alamo Navajo Indian Reservation, public relations professional Tom Garrity contacted KOB.  Garrity sent the following email:

“The following information is being sent on behalf of Mr. Justin Jones who represents the Alamo Navajo School Board.

Dear Mr. Ramirez and Mr. Mason,

Based on your visit to the Alamo Navajo School Board (ANSB) earlier this week, you identified information that was needed from our organization.  Since a written request was not made we only responding to the verbal requests made at our meeting.

Budget and Travel Expenses

The ANSB Education operating budget is $5,686,567. These funds are provided through an ISEP and Title Fund Grants.  Education Administrative Support expenses are funded through a third, Administrative Cost Grant ($611,000). All three grants are restricted funds, meaning they can not be appropriated for any other purpose than what is designated by the funder. These restrictions are audited yearly, in accordance with the Federal Single Audit Act.  The ANSB has had a clean audit for many years.

The travel and training budget, approved by the government, is represented largely in the Administrative Cost Grant. Represented in two (2) different designations, the board’s travel budget is $80,000. Of that amount roughly $28,000 is designated to cover travel expenses related strictly for Board training travel; (budget is set by a Federal Grant formula); and $52,000 for Board travel to monthly Education related meetings: Navajo Nation Government, School Board Associations, Education Lobbying.

The ANSB seriously considers all budget matters including the total travel and training items which amount to less than 1.4 Percent of the total budget (which comes out of the Administrative Cost Grant).

ANSB Housing

The ANSB has 35 rental quarters which are rented to staff members and a board member.  All of the occupants pay rent, including the one Board member. The board member who is renting from ANSB has renal sickness and needs access to modern living quarters.

Funeral Expenses

The ANSB has a long tradition of giving monetary funeral assistance to members of the Alamo community. This assistance has been in place for years and is provided for residents who have financial need. Money is not appropriated for board members and no special consideration or funding has been provided to ANSB members in recent memory. Last year, the ANSB provided $3,000 in funding to pay for this service.  The funding came from the Community Support account, which is a part of the Administrative Cost Grant (the grant guidelines deem this as an allow expense).

Alamo Navajo Chapter and its connection to the ANSB

There is no legal connection or governance oversight between the Alamo Navajo Chapter and the ANSB. To provide the comparison to New Mexico governance, Cibola County and the State Department of Energy Minerals and Natural Resources Department are separate entities and one cannot sanction another.  The Alamo Navajo Chapter has its own governance and is a standalone government entity that does not receive funding from or is a vendor to the ANSB. The Navajo Nation Central Government, Navajo Nation Council, is the direct oversight over the Education operations, not the Chapter Government.”

Credits

Chris Ramirez

Copyright 2018 KOB-TV LLC, a Hubbard Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved

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