SANTA FE (KRQE) - After announcing last month that school districts and charter schools that were overpaid, some by hundreds of thousands of dollars, by the state Public Education Department did not have to return the extra money, PED now said those districts must pay it all back.
In an email to districts and charters last week, Secretary-Designate Hanna Skandera said state law requires any school or district that received more than its entitlement, "a refund shall be made by the school district or charter school to the state general fund."
The problem stems from a PED miscalculation of each district's at-risk funding. Each district or charter school is given money based on the number of its students who live in poverty, who don't speak English or who drop in and out of school. In February, one district notified PED it was underpaid by as much as $40,000. A full report found 25 districts and schools were underpaid by more than $830,000, while 26 others were overpaid by more than $2.5 million.
PED Deputy Secretary Paul Aguilar said the mistake boiled down to a simple alphabetical error.
"We have a school district in New Mexico, 'West Las Vegas,' that falls in the w's," Aguilar said. "The way we received the data from the federal government is they coded it as 'Las Vegas West.'"
It meant that allocations for every school and district listed below Las Vegas on the master list was off by one line. Districts that were shorted said the mistake cost them teachers and tutoring programs.
PED paid back all the underpaid districts by the end of last month.
After initially telling districts that were overpaid they were in the clear, PED said state law required them to return the money. Aguilar said he was aware of the law when he told KRQE News 13 last month that districts wouldn't have to pay.
"It was our intent to move forward with not having to pay them back but we got a lot of push back form our legislative partners, from school districts and from auditors," Aguilar said. "The decision was made to not take it back in the current school year, but again we always left our options open to continue to look at it."
Overpaid districts were readjusted for their at-risk calculation for next school year's budget which begins July 1, meaning they will already have fewer dollars than they had this last school year. Now, they'll also be forced to pay back the overpayment. Aguilar said PED will work with each district and school to set up its own payment plan.
Rio Rancho Public Schools owes the state close to $1 million. Lovington Public Schools is on the hook for more than $427,000. Santa Fe Public Schools must turn over $230,000.
Santa Fe Public Schools Chief Business Officer Carl Gruenler said the district should be able to pay that money back but said PED already under-funds education for at-risk and special education students.
"We certainly can't fund our in-school programs the way we want to, particularly our at-risk kids. We're under-funded for our special education," Gruenler said. "The irony is that we're under-funded for our at-risk students, and we're having to pay a bit back."
Democratic Sen. Jacob Candelaria of Albuquerque said PED should have been upfront from the beginning.
"If they knew what the law was, then they misled the public, and they misled the legislature," Candelaria said. "Now school boards have about a week to figure out how they are going to absorb a hit to their budget."
"That's teacher's jobs, that's services for kids, that's a bunch of stuff that a month would have made a difference in planning for that hit," Candelaria said.
Candelaria said he will write a letter to the Legislative Finance Committee this week to look into PED's controls and procedures after what he calls a string of mismanagement at the department.
A spokesman for Gov. Susana Martinez said an audit of PED is not necessary and that there are no issues with controls at the department.
"It's always striking how concerns raised by PED's critics never center around our students," said Enrique Knell.
After getting out of federal prison early this week it looks like former state Sen. Manny Aragón isn't at a halfway house after all. He's back at his own house in the South Valley.
The owner and an employee of a local smoke shop are in federal custody accused of selling spice at the Rio Rancho store.
The New Mexico State Police officer who fired his weapon at van filled with kids during a traffic stop gone bad has been fired.
The civil case filed against former cop Levi Chavez in the gunshot death of his wife is coming to an end without a trial.
Could there be a serial dog snatcher in Roswell?
New Mexico is at the beginning of a deep freeze, and state officials are paying close attention.