Three local lawmakers are requesting an independent state audit of the Montebello Unified School District, according to a letter addressed to the school board’s president, Lani Cupchoy.
The letter comes on the heels of the school board’s approval of nearly 700 in staffing cuts to deal with an estimated $30 million budget shortfall over the next two years.
The Los Angeles County Office of Education warned the district of the shortfall earlier this year, and advised that failure to take action to reduce the deficit would result in the county office sending in a financial overseer to get district finances in order.
In their tactfully worded letter, Sen. Tony Mendoza and Assemblymembers Cristina Garcia and Ed Chau – who each represents parts of the school district – acknowledged MUSD board members’ “efforts to provide the best services possible for our students,” and added it’s “imperative” state officials and MUSD work together to ensure the education of the district’s 30,000 students is not jeopardized by the looming financial crisis.
“An independent audit may present a solid foundation for MUSD to build upon and develop long-term budget reforms to improve its fiscal standing,” states the letter, which informed the district of the legislators’ intention to ask the state’s Joint Legislative Audit Committee (JLAC) to conduct the financial review.
Back in December, following up on a request by Board Member Ben Cardenas, the school board announced plans for a forensic audit of MUSD finances, a decision supported at the time by school employees and parents.
In a statement emailed to EGP Wednesday, Cardenas he is encouraged by the state’s willingness to step in.
“There is no doubt having the state conduct the audit will ensure a thorough and detailed audit, eliminate the potential for fraud and abuse, bring about integrity to the process, and increase public confidence in the outcome,” he said, adding he’s communicated to Garcia the board’s “support for her intent, the process and to offer our partnership and collaboration in conducting the audit.”
Conducting the audit through the state will keep hundreds of thousands of dollars in classrooms and available for other services, the legislators wrote. The state audit would also provide ongoing follow-up reports to the district at no cost.
“While an audit may not solve MUSD’s current budget problems, it can provide insight on how to begin the process of balancing their budget, as well as how to avoid this situation again in the future,” the letter read.
The state’s audit could take 6 months or longer to complete, depending on the scope. Teala Schaff, Garcia’s communications director, told EGP legislators are seeking an expedited audit and will work with stakeholders to determine the scope.
CSEA Chapter 505 President Lloyd Garrison told EGP that while he’s concerned about how long the audit will take, he supports the action.
“We want to get it done right,” he said, adding he’s confident it will reveal discrepancies in vendor contracts approved over the last two years.
“Contracts that would never be signed by most districts,” he claimed.
“Once they look into that they’ll see some practices definitely need to be improved and even terminated,” he added.
In the end, he hopes the audit leads to new contract negotiations and pink slips being rescinded.
“These are uncertain times right now” for us, Garrison said. “But our negotiations will continue no matter who is here, whether it is the state or not.”
JLAC will make a decision on whether to undertake the audit at their next hearing on March 28.