SANTA FE (KRQE) - A simple alphabetical error by the state's Public Education Department cost the most vulnerable students at 25 New Mexico school districts and charter schools hundreds of thousands of dollars last year.
At the same time, and because of the same error, PED overpaid another 26 districts and charter schools more than $2.5 million.
"We take responsibility for it," said Paul Aguilar, PED's deputy secretary. "It is our error."
Each year, PED gives money to districts and charter schools based on their number of so-called "at-risk" students, or those who live in poverty, don't speak English or who drop in and out of school. But this year, one school district landed on the list in a different position than usual, Aguilar said.
"We have a school district in New Mexico, West Las Vegas, that falls in the ‘Ws' " he said. "The way we received the data from the federal government is they coded it as ‘Las Vegas West.' "
And because PED didn't catch the error, it meant that every school below Las Vegas on the list was off by one line, he said. That caused a chain reaction that benefited some schools and put others at a disadvantage.
For example, Roswell schools lost out on $180,000, according to data supplied by PED. Moriarty was shorted $70,000. And Los Lunas school officials estimate they should have gotten $400,000 more than they received, though PED says that number is closer to $182,000.
In total, those schools lost out on $830,903, according to PED data.
Mike Chambers, superintendent of Magadalena schools near Socorro, caught the error and told PED in February.
"When I first reported it, the response was, ‘No way,' " he said. "And I said, ‘Well, I think you better look because it is there.' "
And, sure enough, it was. Magdalena lost out on about $40,000, forcing the district to cut back on tutoring for kids, Chambers said.
"Easy to understand how the error occurred," he said. "My disappointment is we're sitting here two months later and it's still not taken care of.'
Chambers said PED waited to reimburse schools until the end of the school year so it could make sure it had enough money to do so. That should happen by the end of the month, he said.
At the same time, the 26 districts that were overpaid – Rio Rancho schools, for example, received almost $1 million too much – won't have to repay that money, he said.
The total amount overpaid to those schools was $2,515,187, according to PED.
Still, the fact that the underpaid schools will get the money they were shorted irks critics who said that does little to benefit the kids who were cheated during the school year that just ended.
"I understand people make mistakes," said state Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Alb. "But when you make mistakes, you should recognize it immediately and move swiftly to correct it. I don't think that's happened here."
And Candelaria pointed out that this is the second significant fiscal error PED has made in recent years.
The first occurred because PED didn't maintain or increase the amount of spending on special education in 2010 and 2011 – a requirement to obtain federal education money. That means PED could lose out on $43 million in federal special education funding, though the state has filed for a waiver with the feds on that point and is still waiting to hear the verdict.
"You've got to wonder how they are running their shop," Candelaria said.
Aguilar, however, said department oversight is functioning properly.
"I think the oversight at the Public Education Department is actually pretty good," he said.
Still, he said PED has accepted responsibility for the errors and is trying to correct them.
"The buck stops with us and we're working to make it right," Aguilar said.
Santa can't do it all alone. He needs elves to help with the toys and he needs the post office to help with the deliveries.
After joining a program that helps disadvantage kids, a man entrusted with children is accused of using the program to prey on a young boy.
Thieves are leaving big, gaping holes around Roswell.
A pedestrian is in critical condition Thursday night after being struck by a car in downtown Albuquerque.
New Mexico honored a fallen hero Thursday as family, friends and law enforcement officers gathered for the funeral of Sandoval County Sheriff's Sergeant Robert Baron.
It seems with every game this season he looks like the best player on the court. Lobos senior forward Cameron Bairstow continues to shine.