Rats are plaguing Phoenix’s Murphy Elementary School District, both literally and figuratively.
A recently released report from Simon Consulting, a firm hired by the state to comb through and repair the district’s financials, details a long list of nasty little problems nibbling away at the four-school system, from actual rats biting students in class to shady characters bilking schools for maintenance that was never completed, curriculums that were never used, and donated NFL tickets that were scalped online.
In June, the Arizona Department of Education charged MESD with gross financial mismanagement and transferred ultimate authority to Simon Consulting to help turn things around. The “120-day report” published in early October is perhaps the first comprehensive look at what they’re up against.
Consultants met with principals from all four schools over the summer to identify problems and set expectations for behavior and leadership.
“It was disclosed during the course of this meeting that all four elementary schools have evidence of black mold. Receiver immediately approved testing of the classrooms and buildings with the suspected mold, and will approve treatment as the results of the testing become known,” according to the report.
“Additionally, there is a significant rodent and pest problem at Garcia, which resulted in two children being bit by rats in the previous school year. The Receiver immediately approved extermination and pest control services for the rodent issue to this school and any others with a documented infestation.”
Weeks later, consultants learned about other nefarious activity at the administration office.
On June 19, the receiver attended a meeting with Coach Mo Streety of the Arizona Cardinals regarding intramural sport programs he wanted to reintroduce into the district and learned about suspicious activity with donated tickets in the past.
“Allegations indicate that while significant numbers of tickets were left at the district office – 50 to 200 tickets for either Arizona Cardinals or Arizona Diamondbacks games on a regular basis – that very few if any were actually used for this purpose,” according to the receiver’s report.
“Coach Streety supported this allegation by stating that the staff at the Cardinals found evidence of these tickets being sold online. Numerous school employees stated that they were aware of certain district employees attending games on a regular basis, but were under the impression that the tickets were being purchased by some other means,” it continued. “The Cardinals and Diamondbacks decided to stop delivering the tickets at the time their sales were discovered online, and Coach Streety stated that both teams are interested in renewing the program now that the district is under both new leadership and Receivership.”
Other rats lurked in the school budget, eating up money for maintenance that was never carried out.
“The team identified a contract that was costing the district significant amounts of money for very little benefit. This contract was with Tolin Mechanical and was intended to serve as a maintenance and repair contract for the HVAC systems on school property,” according to Simon Consulting. “After investigation and monitoring, it was found that the basic monthly maintenance that included changing air conditioner filters and checking hoses, for example, was simply not performed. This contract was terminated by the Receiver on August 8, 2018. The district intends to have their maintenance staff perform monthly maintenance and monitoring, and will outsource any large repairs that need to be done” and save $85,000 a year, according to the report.
“In addition to the Tolin maintenance contract, (receiver-appointed superintendent) Dr. (Dennis) Goodwin found numerous instances of wasteful spending. Most significant, to date, was the discovery of approximately $500,000 in brand new, unused curriculum that had been ordered in prior years and never used,” the report continued.
“Dr. Goodwin and the Receiver made the decision to liquidate the surplus curriculum, in an effort to reclaim some of the funds used. Additionally, as this curriculum was being stored in a classroom, this space has been opened up as a potential teaching area for future use.”
The wasted $500,000 was on top of a different $173,000 curriculum purchased to replace it.
The problems outlined in the 120-report add to a list of disturbing issues that prompted the state to take over the Murphy district to begin with.
In June, the state pointed to numerous financial issues, including about $2 million in overspending on maintenance, sky-high administrative expenses from things like unnecessary stipends and cell phones, and its failure to reign in wasteful spending.
Several administration employees, for example, received a $4,500 travel stipend for using their own vehicles for work, regardless of whether their job required travel or not. The district’s prior superintendent, Jose Diaz, also retired in February with a $12,000 performance bonus, “in spite of declining student performance, decreased enrollment, and overspending at the District level,” according to the report.
“Misspending and mishandling of funds was a daily occurrence.”
The revelations follow complaints from parents who threatened to withdraw their children from district schools in July over growing class sizes, high teacher turnover, poor academic performance and other issues.
“Those are the reasons we are withdrawing our kids from the school; we need a better education for them,” parent Monica Loya, with the parents group We Are One, told KPHO during a July protest in front of the district’s headquarters. “I don’t what them in this district because of all this nonsense that is going on.”
Many of the district’s biggest money problems center on the refusal of local officials to keep labor and administrative costs in line with declining student enrollment, and the receiver is targeting those expenses for major savings this year.
“The receiver expects to save Murphy an estimated $640,000 by reducing staff, particularly administrators, and realigning job descriptions, according to the report. In all, the receiver is proposing $1.2 million in savings for the 2018-19 budget,” according to AZcentral.
“Officials are also working on the community’s relationship with the district. According to the report, officials met with several parents to create a focus group to connect better with parents and will re-establish parent-teacher associations at all four elementary schools.”
And while new leadership is slowing making progress to get the district back on track, even folks like former Murphy superintendent Robert Donofrio, who was brought in to help, were shocked by the 120-day report.
“The stuff about mold in some of the schools… the rats … kind of floored me,” Donofrio told AZcentral.
“What I was most alarmed at was the degree of how mismanaged the district was,” he said. “I know a lot of people are kind of upset by the report.”