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State loosens scrutiny at West

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By David Giuliani

Nearly three years ago, the state put the West Las Vegas school district on a tight leash financially. But in recent times, the scrutiny has been loosened.

The state Public Education Department placed the district under heightened financial scrutiny in August 2006 in response to information that West’s bilingual department held an invitation-only, adults-only nearly $10,000 party. And it was discovered that the program spent money on top-of-the-line furniture and a large refrigerator, among other items.

The state’s announcement on the heightened scrutiny came just hours before the West school board’s monthly meeting in the summer of 2006. A red-faced Patrick Marquez, then the board’s chairman, defended the district’s actions, telling the media to “kiss my green and gold ---.”

Just months later, Marquez and fellow board member Michael Vigil, both of whom argued that the party was a good use of funds, lost by wide margins in their re-election campaigns.

Earlier this month, Roberta Vigil, the district’s former bilingual coordinator, was found guilty of fraud and conspiracy to commit fraud in state District Court in Santa Fe in connection with the spending for the party. The state accused her of attempting to hide the true purpose of the spending by calling the party a “workshop” and the food “sustenance.”

Superintendent Jim Abreu, who took the helm a couple of years ago, said no one should be expecting any fancy parties at West anymore.

“I don’t have parties. We learn from experience,” said Abreu, who also serves as bilingual coordinator.

When the state an-nounced the heightened oversight, the Public Education Department had to sign off on all district expenses. But these days, only those more than $5,000 have to get the state’s blessing, Abreu said.

“I’m looking to get off the oversight by fall. That’s my optimism. I don’t want to put words in (state Public Education Secretary) Veronica Garcia’s mouth,” Abreu said.

The superintendent said he didn’t want to criticize any former officials, saying he preferred to focus on what’s going on now.

For the last couple of years, the district has received the top ranking for its audit, Abreu said. Of course, West received the same kinds of rankings when the spending in question occurred. Auditors choose documents randomly when they conduct their inquiries, and they apparently didn’t review those related to the party.

The bilingual office, which was at West Las Vegas High School, has since moved to the central office, with the school nurse taking the program’s place. The high-end furniture in Vigil’s office is now being used by secretaries in the central office on Bridge Street.

After the Optic reported on the spending related to the party in June 2006, the statewide media picked up on the story. And West has often been in the headlines since.

The publicity may not come to an end anytime soon. Former Superintendent Joe Baca’s trial is set for July; he is charged with misspending public money for the party, among other expenses.

Meanwhile, the federal Education Department continues to investigate the West bilingual program. At the recent trial, a special agent for the department was in the audience the entire time.

The agent wouldn’t comment on what the federal government’s next move would be.