Santa Fe Public Schools Board of Education member Glenn Wikle has always been something of an nonconformist—but in recent weeks, his outspokenness has prompted some criticism from fellow board members and the public.
It started with Wikle’s last-minute objections to $130 million in bonds for construction projects at local schools. The other four board members, as well as some members of the public, expressed outrage, but voters approved the bonds by a 3-to-1 margin nonetheless. Then, on Feb. 9, the Santa Fe New Mexican published an op-ed by SFPS Citizens Review Committee Chairman Rob Wing.
“Something is very wrong with the announcement, the timing and the reasons given for his change of ‘personal opinion,’” Wing wrote of Wikle’s decision to oppose the bond. “Trust is precious, Mr. Wikle. Please step down.”
Wing wrote about his role on the CRC, a volunteer body whose 11 members, appointed by school board members (with the exception of one union representative), are tasked with recommending how the school board should spend general obligation bond money. Wing also noted that the CRC unanimously recommended the $130 million bond to the school board. (Wikle voted in November to schedule the bond for election, despite later coming out publicly against it.)
Near the end of the op-ed, Wing writes about his day job.
“I have worked for a local contractor for almost five years,” he writes, “[as] one of maybe three in Santa Fe that would qualify for district projects.”
To Wikle, the fact that someone so closely associated with the construction industry sits on a group that recommends how to spend public money for construction projects raises an eyebrow.
“It’s definitely a Santa Fe construction insider working with the system,” he tells SFR.
New Mexico Common Cause Executive Director Viki Harrison says even a perceived conflict of interest is problematic. She adds that the rules need to be more clearly delineated.
“The public loses faith in government when something like this happens,” Harrison says.
At a school board meeting last week, Wikle proposed reforms to add oversight of the CRC. One proposal encourages the school board to pass a policy that “limits conflicts of interest among CRC members.”
“We shouldn’t have [SFPS] administrative employees or employees of the construction industry or [SFPS] finance on the CRC,” Wikle says.
By finance, he’s referring to Lisa Randall, SFPS’ energy conservation coordinator. Wikle twice opposed Randall’s appointment to the CRC because she works on installing energy conservation projects for the district. As a member of the CRC, she can recommend what portion of the bond money should go toward conservation projects.
Wikle calls it “a clear conflict of interest.” Other school board members, however, see it differently.
Board Vice President Linda Trujillo, who recently re-appointed Randall to the CRC, says the district already has a “pretty [well]-defined wall” to limit CRC members from personally benefiting from projects they recommend.
It goes like this: SFPS sends out a team of consultants to determine which of the district’s buildings need repairs or improvements. That team reports back to the CRC, which votes on whether to recommend spending money on those needs. The CRC then brings its recommendations to the school board, which can either endorse or reject them. If the board endorses the spending, bonds go up for a public vote.
If the public approves the bonds, SFPS’ purchasing department then oversees the bidding process. CRC has no say on how the contracts are actually awarded.
“We are a review committee,” Wing, who works for Sarcon Construction Corp., tells SFR. “We don’t generate the information.”
He says Sarcon hasn’t bid on public work in a decade and that he would recuse himself from a vote if a conflict ever arose.
“All he’s doing is recommending the bond and different projects to be facilitated throughout the district,” board member Steve Carrillo says of Wing. “If he’s voting for a contract, that’s different.”
Trujillo says both Randall’s and Wing’s industry backgrounds bring expertise to the process, which is “important when you’re trying to make important decisions.”
But Wikle, while conceding that it’s hard to get somebody without a direct interest on a body like the CRC, says it nevertheless “dilutes” the purpose of a citizens’ review committee.
“The system seems to lack a kind of independent oversight,” he says.