Tornillo ISD superintendent defends snowmobile expense, other purchases

HTC touch

Paul Vranish, superintendent of the Tornillo Independent School District near El Paso, said allegations that he misspent district funds were unfounded and that the Texas Education Agency was mistaken in its preliminary audit that demanded a more complete forensic audit of Vranish.

The stinging state report claimed that Vranish spent unauthorized money on an HTC Touch cellphone and a Motorola Xoom tablet, double-billed for travel reimbursements and paid for repair of a personal snowmobile with public money.

“They were off on this,” Vranish said Tuesday, referring to the audit, which was completed in February at the behest of several members of the school board, which is divided 3-3 in its support of Vranish.

Among the audit’s findings:

  • Vranish and his wife, Marla, erroneously billed the school district for reimbursements of charges put on his personal credit card, including the travel expenses of other district employees. Vranish was reimbursed by the district for the same trip on two occasions, and at one time billed for a hotel room even though his airline ticket showed him returning that same day.
  • Vranish used frequent flier points for a trip and then submitted and received a reimbursement for what the flight would have cost had he paid cash.
  • The district had a practice of rewarding students who performed well on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills with taxpayer-funded trips to a number of locations, including Honolulu, New York, Boston, and Washington D.C., a violation of a confidentiality provision in state statute that prohibits identifying those students.

The report, which looked at finances for 2010 and 2011, notes that Vranish’s contract with the district calls for cell phone services for both personal and business use but not for phones and tablets. The items billed include $682.85 for various accessories including the tablet, phone and a speaker dock.

Vranish said he bought the technology as part of his role as technology director of the four-school, 1,500-student district.

Paul VranishPaul Vranish

“I was unaware that the thinking existed that for me to buy something it had to be in my contract," he said.

The audit also questioned the billing for repair of a snowmobile, something most Texas school officials wouldn’t be putting on their expense accounts. But Vranish has for the past several years taken groups of students to Colorado in the winter for a school outing. And Cindy Criswell, co-owner of All Season Adventures in Salida, Colo., confirmed he rented snowmobiles on that day.

“He comes in here for a day, and they usually get 10 to 12 snowmobiles,” Criswell said.

Vranish noted that another incident noted in the report was the reimbursement for a flight that he had not yet taken.

“Don’t you pay before you fly?” Vranish asked. “It is ludicrous to do an audit, then have a criticism saying you got paid before the trip was taken.”

He was also criticized for a policy in which he signs off on his own expenses, although Vranish contends that is just not so.

“In our district, when someone approves a purchase, it has to go though four reviewers before it comes back to me,” said Vranish, who has headed the district since 2002. “It is absolutely true that I give final approval on any purchase. We’re a small school district. [The audit] ignores that it goes through several others before it gets to me.”

Vranish noted there has also been reference to his company PMV Services, which he said he operates part-time as a certified board trainer for school districts.

“I don’t take money for conducting the training,” he said. “I just ask them to cover my expenses.”

The TEA ordered the school district to hire a forensic auditor to perform an audit on the reimbursements for Vranish and his wife for the years 2006 to 2011. It also ordered the district to more closely monitor the reimbursements and expenses of Vranish.

The school district has responded to the TEA. In the response, which the TEA claims is not a public record until the final review of the situation is completed, the district can refute the audit’s findings.

“If they can substantiate something, why something should be changed, we will change it or else we will say no,” said DeEtta Culbertson, a TEA spokeswoman. “We incorporate the responses with our rationale for accepting or denying, then we publish our final audit.”

Culbertson declined to comment on Vranish’s statement that the TEA auditors “were off on this.”

The district's response to the audit is generally completed with the approval of the school board. But a review of the board agendas since the release of the audit last month shows nothing. The audit is scheduled to be discussed in a meeting Thursday along with consideration of a policy that requires an officer of the board to sign off on Vranish's expenses.

Vranish resigned in January and received a $276,000 payout, which one report attributed to his contractual arrangement with the district. The resignation was not effective immediately.

In addition to expense account privileges, Vranish’s contract calls for a $117,750-a-year salary with a $3,600 car allowance.

He blames a divided school board for his troubles.

“I’m not happy about the people on the board who filed this complaint,” Vranish said. “It had no basis in truth.”

In an email four days after Vranish’s resignation, school board President Rachel Avila sent out an email to her colleagues praising Vranish and attacking three other board members who voted not to extend his contract in the wake of the TEA audit findings.

Vranish has been with the district since 2002, when he came over after serving as superintendent in Buffalo, Texas.  He has testified in state legislative hearings and in 2003 served on the Education Commissioner’s Cabinet of Superintendents.

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Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

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Photo of cellphone by flickr user Rudy Herman, used via a Creative Commons license.

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