SAN LUIS, Ariz. — The superintendent of the Gadsden Elementary School District is blaming human error for what the Arizona Auditor General’s Office cited as wasteful spending on travel and lax record keeping and accounting controls by the district.

In a recently completed audit, the auditor general concluded that the Gadsden district wasted $65,450 over five years on annual retreats by the governing board and other district officials to Coronado Island off San Diego. The audit also found that the 2018 trip, which cost $16,000, exceeded the travel spending limits set by the state.

While the audit did not find that the public was illegally excluded from the retreats, it concluded the district effectively limited access by holding the gatherings in a location about 400 roundtrip road miles away from its headquarters in San Luis.

The audit also found that lax administration of payroll policies allowed some hourly employees in the district to be paid for regular hours not worked, and that poor oversight of the district’s transportation program led to potential student safety risks, reporting errors and potential misuse of fuel and supplies.

In an interview Monday, Gadsden Superintendent Raymond Aguilera sought to point out that the review found no evidence of intentional violation by the district of state laws.

Aguilera blamed himself for an error in judgment in holding the retreats at Coronado Island, a popular summer vacation destination.

“I’m not going to make any excuse,” he said. “If there is anyone to blame, it’s me, not the governing board, not the administration. It was a judgment call. They told us not to do it again, and it won’t be done again.”

From 2015 to 2019, Aguilera, the five members of the governing board, the district’s finance director, the district’s principals and an administrative secretary met in the annual retreats at Coronado Island.

In 2018, the board members and nine other officials stayed two nights at a nightly hotel rate of $259. The maximum rate allowed by the state was $167 a night.

Aguilera said district officials used their own funds to pay the travel costs for any family members who accompanied them to Coronado Island.

He said Coronado Island was chosen as the location for the retreats because it offered an environment free from distraction.

“They are not vacations, they are hours of a lot of work, of focusing on the (district’s) goals for the following year. We want it to be clear that they were not, for anyone, paid vacation days.”

The audit also concluded the district paid employees for hours not worked, but lacked documentation showing the governing board had approved or was aware of the payments.

Auditors also said hourly employees received pay for the equivalent of 30 holidays, 21 more than the number of federal holidays, and that the district had no documentation that some bus drivers had worked eight-hour shifts for which they were paid.

Individual schools and departments in the district inconsistently handled hourly employees’ time sheets and overtime, resulting in inappropriate payments, the audit found.

“For example, in fiscal year 2017, a school secretary took advantage of the minimal oversight by falsifying time sheets for her husband, another district employee, on days he was not working,” the audit report stated. “This resulted in approximately $1,550 of inappropriate payments. Although this employee was dismissed and reimbursed the inappropriate payments, the district did not develop and implement appropriate payroll policies and procedures for schools and departments to follow to help reduce the risk of future inappropriate payments.”

Concerning poor oversight of the district’s transportation program, the audit found that in fiscal 2018, only two of 10 sampled bus drivers met minimum standards to be certified as drivers by the state.

According to the audit report, the district did not show that it had practiced sufficient preventative maintenance on its buses in the 2017 and 2018 years. Also in fiscal 2018, the district overreported the number of miles traveled by its buses by more than 16,000 miles and that it overreported by more than twofold the number of students transported.

The Auditor General’s Office made 13 recommendations to correct the deficiencies cited in the audit.

Belinda Boblett, director of staff improvement and professional development for the Gadsden district, said some of the recommendations have already been implemented, while the district is establishing improved record keeping and accounting control to resolve other deficiencies cited by auditors.

“In many cases, it was a question of not checking whether there were time sheets or documents (verifying employees worked hours for which they were paid). “It was not done in the departments, but that doesn’t mean that those employees hadn’t worked.”

Boblett, who is overseeing the district’s efforts to come in compliance with auditors’ recommendations, said the district’s priority is student safety and that the district has since documented that all drivers are properly certified.

She said the district is in the process of adopting new payroll and accounting systems to correct deficiencies in record keeping of payroll and bus maintenance and fuel use.

Robert Bernhard, the district’s finance director, said the district overreported bus mileage and the number of students transported because it added the number of morning and afternoon trips together, rather than tallying them separately, as required by the state. But he said the district did not receive any additional, undue funding from the state, because irrespective of the number of students transported, the cost of the trips remained the same.

He said the audit, done for the state by the Heinfeld Meech & Co. accounting firm, never before made observations about district travel expenditures, he said,

“There are only two or three auditors at that level in Arizona,” he said. “Every year they look at everything in finance and operation, including travel expenses, and we never received any observations about that.”

Aguilera blamed the deficiencies on human error.

“With any system that you have, the human element is always there, and as good as the system may be, there can always be an error. Wherever you go, you’re not going to find a perfect district.”

He added that it is impossible to avoid bad acts by individual employees, such as the secretary who falsified time sheets. That employee, he noted, was fired.

Aguilera said the governing board is aware of the number of days for which hourly workers received holiday pay, and that that policy will remain in effect although it will be reviewed annually.

Aguilera said the district, in holding its retreats at Coronado Island, had no intention of limiting access to the public. He said this year and in the future the retreat will be held at the district’s administrative office, where regular governing board meets, or at the San Luis Library.

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