The San Diego County superintendent of schools is asking the state to investigate the San Ysidro School District, citing concerns about payments made to the district’s two former top administrators.

[one_half][box type=”shadow this-matters”]The San Ysidro School District, which serves some of the poorest students in the county, has been mired in controversy in recent years, including having been on the brink of bankruptcy.[/box][/one_half]

“This is a very serious situation and as always, our priority is the well-being of students,” Music Watson, a county Office of Education spokeswoman said in a statement Thursday to inewsource confirming the request for a state probe. “To ensure a full and transparent examination of expenditures and internal controls, the county superintendent of schools has exercised his authority … to conduct an investigation.”

The Office of Education is specifically calling for an “extraordinary audit,” which can be requested when a county superintendent believes there is potential fraud or misuse of public funds at a district. It is done by the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, a state agency tasked with providing financial guidance and reviews to school districts in California.

Watson said she believes this is the first time the Office of Education has called for such an audit of a San Diego County school district. Last year, the state financial review agency conducted only two extraordinary audits of California school districts.

Word of the county superintendent’s action came shortly before a San Ysidro school board meeting that began with some trustees saying they have received threats in recent days as allegations were made of financial misdeeds by the district’s top two administrators, who have since resigned.

At the meeting, the board also unanimously approved a contract with Los Angeles-area educator Mary Willis to be the district’s new interim superintendent. The board voted 4-1 Monday in a special meeting to name Willis to the post. She will be paid $1,000 a day, not to exceed $42,000. Her salary is based on the daily rate the former superintendent was paid.

She is the district’s fifth interim superintendent since Manuel Paul resigned as superintendent in 2013 before pleading guilty in a pay-to-play scandal.

Willis, an education consultant, told inewsource she has previously worked in districts undergoing audits but not one mandated by a county superintendent.

“You just answer the questions the best you can, provide the documents that are there, and let the outside agency take a look at them and say what was right, what was wrong,” she said.
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The state audit is the latest in a series of troubles for the district that began on Sept. 1 with the resignation of Superintendent Julio Fonseca. His deputy, Jose Arturo Sanchez-Macias, took over the top job until he resigned at a special meeting last Friday night.

Fonseca left the district with a $376,000 severance package. An inewsource investigation found that when that package was combined with his salary and other financial perks he made at least  $1 million for the 26 months he worked there. That averaged out to make him the highest paid superintendent in the county and the second highest paid in the state.

Questions also were raised by school board member Rodolfo Linares about Fonseca and Sanchez-Macias cashing out more vacation days than allowed in their contracts. He also said the board was misled about life insurance benefits it approved for the two.

After Thursday night’s meeting, Linares said the state investigation requested by the county superintendent is exactly what he has been asking for.

“I welcome an investigation. We shouldn’t be hiding anything from anybody,” he said.

School board President Rosaleah Pallasigue said she isn’t concerned about the audit.

“We’re willing to work with (the county) in every aspect and cooperate,” she said.

During the meeting, the board members asked for understanding as they work through these challenges and said some trustees have received threats in recent days.

“Is this rock bottom? I don’t know. But now the board is getting threats,” school board member Marcos Diaz. “Is that where San Ysidro is?”

Board member Antonio Martinez said his grandmother has been threatened.

“My grandmother was accosted by two men, and I already filed that police report,” he said. He did not elaborate on how the threats were related to the board’s actions.

Earlier this week, Martinez called for the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office to investigate possible financial misdeeds at the district.

Leonardo Castañeda was a reporter and economic analyst for inewsource. To contact him with tips, suggestions or corrections, please email leocastaneda [at] inewsource [dot] org.