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Raises given to Mora officials

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Ex-leader says hikes replaced lost stipends; board member criticizes increases

By David Giuliani

Mora teachers got an extra dollar this year in their annual contracts. But in May, the district gave pay raises to at least six central office employees.

Then-interim Superintendent Leroy “Huero” Sanchez signed off on the increases days before he left his post in late May. The raises were in the thousands of dollars.

Even the two top officials allegedly involved in questionable spending got pay hikes, which all took effect July 1.  

The others who got raises were mainly clerical employees.

In an interview this week, Sanchez said the employees’ increases covered stipends that were axed. He said that in his five months as the superintendent, he aimed to get rid of the stipends.

Sanchez said giving salaries are more “upfront,” while stipends are hard to track.

The Optic obtained documents showing that some stipends were indeed cut. But even in those cases, the employees appeared to have received increases  beyond the stipends they lost, according to the records.

Agnes Padilla, the district’s business manager, was given a contract worth $69,555 in 2009. That amount increased to $78,055 this year.

Padilla, a 37-year district employee, previously got a $5,000 stipend for her work on Head Start, but the district ended that stipend. In an interview, she said she also used to get a $3,000 from transportation funds, which was also cut.

With those two stipends lost, she said she received a $500 increase.

Last year, State Auditor Hector Balderas slammed the district’s finances. His office conducted an inquiry after the Optic had reported that Mora schools spent thousands of dollars from a discretionary account on leather jackets, beef jerky and snacks for area state lawmakers, Reps. Thomas Garcia, Andrew Barreras and Richard Vigil and Sen. Phil Griego.

Garcia has since been appointed Mora’s superintendent.

The district diverted more than $40,000 in federal information technology funds into that discretionary account, the state auditor found.

“I think it’s poor practice to take dedicated tax dollars to (a discretionary) account. This practice could easily lead to abuse and questionable purchases, which is exactly what happened,” Balderas said last year.

In 2009, after the Optic issued its public records request to get the information on the gifts for legislators, then-Superintendent Dora Romero placed both Padilla and Roger Gonzales, director of institutional support and advancement, on paid leave for “alleged misconduct.”

They were brought back to work after a few weeks.

Gonzales, who was responsible for much of the spending in question, was one of the central office employees who got a raise — from $71,742 to $79,992. Officials said they gave that increase because Gonzales took on extra duties.

The Optic reported on Gonzales’ raise in June.

Sanchez, the interim superintendent, said Mora has gone through many superintendents, but Padilla has stayed in place.

“She has a lot of responsibility. She does a good job for the district,” he said. “If they (school board) weren’t happy with Agnes, she wouldn’t be there.”

Sanchez said Padilla’s pay is comparable to those of business managers in other similarly sized districts.

He said the Optic had been unfair in that it hadn’t reported on the district’s progress since the critical state audit. He said the district had corrected the problems and is one of the few in the state whose budget is in the black. He said Mora hadn’t laid off any teachers. But he said none of that information has been in the newspaper.

“You’re cutting people down all the time,” he told a reporter.

School board member George Trujillo, who has been voting in the minority for the last couple of years, criticized the pay increases. He said that’s why he voted against the district’s budget.

He said he couldn’t get straight answers from Sanchez on the finances. He said the pay hikes were a “slap in the face” to other staff at the schools, including teachers, whom he called the “backbone of the schools.”

Trujillo said some employees lost their stipends but didn’t get any pay increases.

He said some of his board colleagues think they’re “almighty and know it all,” but weren’t aware of the situation.