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Miami-Dade school board members vote to audit their own spending, after arrest of former member

The Miami-Dade school board holds a meeting after swearing in the newly appointed member, Maria Bosque-Blanco, on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023, in downtown Miami.
Alie Skowronski
Miami Herald
The Miami-Dade school board holds a meeting after swearing in the newly appointed member, Maria Bosque-Blanco, on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023, in downtown Miami.

Miami-Dade County School Board members voted Wednesday night to audit their own use of district-issued credit cards in the wake of the stunning arrest of a former school board member who prosecutors say spent tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on personal expenses.

Board members unanimously voted to approve the proposal, just days after former Miami-Dade School Board Member Lubby Navarro was arrested and charged with multiple counts of fraud and grand theft for allegedly using her school district credit cards to run up more than $100,000 in unauthorized purchases. Miami-Dade prosecutors allege that she went undetected by “doctoring” receipts, whiting-out her name and explaining away the purchases to district accounting staff.

An attorney for Navarro has maintained that she is “innocent of wrongdoing."

“These allegations are very concerning to me,” said Board Chair Mari Tere Rojas. “Because we, as constitutional officers that have been duly elected, have a fiduciary responsibility to the citizens of Miami-Dade County — but most importantly to the students and to our workforce.”

“No one in this organization should be exempt from adhering to procedures and controls that ensure the safeguard of taxpayer dollars.”

Defending district audit practices

Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Jose Dotres, and the district’s Chief Auditor Jon Goodman, were at pains Wednesday to defend the district’s audit processes — saying MDCPS audits align with national standards and that the district remains committed to vigorous financial oversight.

“I was a principal. My school was audited left and right! Even services for my students for special education,” said Dotres, who has spent more than three decades in the district. “Every single thing that is important has been audited.”

But for more than a decade, the members of the school board have apparently been exempted from the comprehensive financial reviews that other district departments are subjected to, district staff testified at Wednesday’s school board meeting.

“It has not been our practice to directly and overtly audit the school board members’ accounts,” said Goodman, the chief auditor.

Goodman, along with the superintendent, reports directly to the school board. And that complicates things, as School Board Member Steve Gallon pointed out.

“We can’t direct the chief auditor to audit us because he works for us. I want to put that on the record,” Gallon said. “So you can’t have the fox watching the hen house. So he has to contract that out.”

READ MORE: Investigators: Former school board member charged $100,000 to district credit cards for personal use

When they are sworn into office, each school board member is issued two credit cards by the district — a purchase card or “p-card” that is meant to cover small dollar purchases for day-to-day operations, and a travel card, to pay for airfares, ground transportation and hotels while on official business.

The last time board members’ credit card usage was formally reviewed was in 2011, according to Goodman.

“In 2011, as part of the external annual financial statement audit, limited and minimal audit procedures were conducted of internal controls concerning board member expenditures,” Goodman said.

“That audit in 2011 … at the end of the day, I wouldn’t even call it an audit,” he added. “It was like … procedures. And it didn’t even result in a written audit report.”

On Wednesday, the school board voted unanimously to change that — authorizing district staff and an outside auditor to conduct formal reviews of their official spending.

Dr. Jose Dotres, the superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, speaks to reporters outside the district's headquarters in Miami on Jan. 17, 2024.
Kate Payne
Dr. Jose Dotres, the superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, speaks to reporters outside the district's headquarters in Miami on Jan. 17, 2024.

What’s in the plan

The Office of Miami-Dade Inspector General Felix Jimenez is conducting its own review of p-card usage by current and former board members. The OIG is also reviewing the district’s relevant policies and procedures and may recommend further reforms, which board members have said they will welcome.

Building on the OIG’s work, the board voted unanimously Wednesday to direct staff to take immediate action, including:

  • Direct the superintendent and the chief auditor to support the OIG’s review of current and previous board members’ spending 
  • Direct the chief auditor to prioritize the audit of p-cards and travels during the 2023-2024 school year (it had been scheduled to be done in the 2024-2025 school year)
  • Include annual audits of the offices of school board members, the office of the superintendent and the office of the general counsel as part of the annual financial statement audit conducted by an external accounting firm
  • Develop revised policies and procedures to implement final recommendations made by the OIG
  • Authorize the chief auditor to contract an outside auditor to conduct the audits

But audits aside, questions persist about how Navarro’s alleged unauthorized spending, on county taxpayers’ dime, was able to go undetected for so long — at least a year, according to investigators.
Among Navarro’s illicit purchases were bottles of wine, cosmetics, hundreds of gift cards and high end appliances that she used to outfit her then-boyfriend’s smoothie shop — as well as some more eye-raising items, like two “artificial silicone pregnancy bellies” and a “Pirate Vixen” Halloween costume, according to her arrest warrant.

Prosecutors also say that Navarro successfully got her monthly credit limits increased to as much as $15,000 a month — even though MDCPS’s rules for p-cards establish that school board members’ spending is “not to exceed” $6,000 a month.

Every month, board members are required to submit their receipts for staff to review and approve. According to the district’s p-card manual, “the Accounts Payable Purchasing Card Department is responsible for receiving and reviewing the monthly statements for all purchasing card accounts”.

Nonetheless, according to investigators, it was senior district officials who ultimately detected Navarro’s unauthorized spending — but only after she resigned and, as prosecutors allege, was no longer around to ‘doctor’ her receipts.

Asked why district staff didn’t catch Navarro’s alleged fraud sooner, Dotres said “that’s part of what they’re looking into."

“You trust, but you verify. And maybe here, what we've done is … that has been off balance," Dotres said. "We've had a [level of] trust that I think has been normal and is expected of everyone. But the verification side is what needs to be strengthened again, in these higher levels and across the organization."

“We all have to abide by the same standards, by the same controls, by the same procedures.”

WLRN’S broadcasting license is held by Miami-Dade County Public Schools, which is governed by elected board members. The school board has a media management agreement with Friends of WLRN, an independent nonprofit organization responsible for daily operations and management of the School Board’s media properties, including WLRN TV, WLRN (91.3 FM) and WKWM (91.5 FM).

Kate Payne is WLRN's Education Reporter. Reach her at kpayne@wlrnnews.org
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