Several Hidalgo County districts in need of improvement according to TEA’s final financial scores

McALLEN — The Texas Education Agency released the final scores for school district’s Financial Integrity Rating System of Texas, known as FIRST, and while most districts in Hidalgo County get to celebrate their A’s, there are some with plenty of room for improvement.

The Hidalgo and Mercedes school districts met standard with the lowest passing grade, a C, while the Donna school district received an F.

The agency rates school districts’ financial standing on a 0 to 100 point system, and bases the score on 15 indicators such as the district’s compliance with payments to its debt service, teacher retirement system, as well the overall health of its general fund.

The latest scores reflect data submitted by districts in 2018 but reflecting their financial standing of the 2016-17 school year. Those that have a fiscal year ending on Aug. 31 must submit the report by Jan. 28, and those that have an early fiscal year end of June 30, must submit it by Nov. 27.

In the case of the Donna school district, the district failed to turn in their report by the January deadline, resulting in a overall score of 0, or an F.

Superintendent Hafedh Azaiez took over control over the school district on July 10 of this year and said he is not familiar with the reasoning behind the district not meeting the Jan. 28 deadline.

The district also hired a new assistant superintendent for business and finance, Ludivina Cansino, in May, Azaiez said, and the report was ultimately submitted in July of this year.

“When we both joined the district, the district had not completed (the report), so that was automatically no for the district, so that’s why the district got an F,” he said. “I don’t know what happened why they couldn’t get it on time.”

Around the time that the report should have been sent to TEA the school district was going through a tumultuous time. An internal audit requested by the board of trustees unveiled several inefficiencies in the purchasing department having to do with vendor vetting and failure to adhere to internal controls.

But a key finding was also the lack of qualifications of two appointees by the then superintendent, Fernando Castillo. This included the then assistant superintendent for business and finance, or chief financial officer, Maricela Valdez, who would have overseen the completion of the report.

Valdez was ultimately fired and she was recently elected to the board of trustees. But the audit findings also led to increased oversight of the district by TEA with the implementation of a state conservator, and to the eventual suspension and resignation of the superintendent.

Findings of the audit were echoed in TEA’s recommendations of corrective actions, Cansino said.

“They are asking us to follow procurement processes,” she said. “We’ve addressed the majority of them. Of course some of them are a lot easier to address and some take a little longer. … One of the things that we are doing is that we are centralizing our purchasing department. It’s a big endeavour, it takes time, but we are in the middle of it. We’ve already came up with a procedures manual.”

These changes in process were already reported to TEA and the district is currently in the middle of submitting the report for the 2017-18 school year as well, the two officials said.

“We are not waiting for TEA to tell us to correct it, we know that is a bad thing and unfortunately it happened,” Azaiez said. “We are in the middle of submitting the report for this year … so we are already ahead of the game.”

In the case of Mercedes and Hidalgo school districts, the two received 60 points out of 100, meeting standard with the lowest score.

Hidalgo received zero points in three areas. Those areas are the district’s number of days of cash on hand in the general fund sufficiency to cover operating expenditures; its general fund meeting or exceeding expenditures; and its debt service coverage ratio sufficiency to cover required debt service.

In the case of Mercedes school district, the district received zeros its general fund meeting or exceeding expenditures; and its debt service coverage ratio sufficiency to cover required debt service.

Superintendent Daniel Trevino, of Mercedes school district, and Xavier Salinas of Hidalgo school district could not be reached for comment by press deadline.