Late last month, the Sedona-Oak Creek School District admitted via a press release that Finance Director Colleen Toscano violated district policy and state law in falsifying official records related to the hiring of a public relations firm.

We must applaud SOCSD and Superintendent David Lykins for admitting guilt on Toscano’s behalf. We also applaud Kur Carr Group President Steve Carr for honorably resigning the account when his agency was under no legal obligation to do so and when his firm was not at fault.

Yet there are still far more questions than answers in Lykins’ press release. For the sake of argument, ignore the reckless absurdity of a public school district with major financial difficulties, low teacher salaries and an already reduced staff spending $20,000 hiring a PR firm to attract new students.

“Lykins said that … the delay in obtaining competitive quotes would not have affected the ultimate awarding of the contract.”
Mr. Lykins, there is no way that could possibly be true.

With that out of the way, while “Toscano acknowledged and has apologized for the departure from the district policy,” the law also doesn’t offer leniency to a government official who intentionally fabricated data, knowingly deceived the public and falsely stated to the press that the firms she reportedly contacted would corroborate her story.

Toscano’s actions are no minor misstep. They have put the district’s entire budget at risk should a state auditor recommend the strictest penalty: A 10 percent across-the-board budget cut of all state funds, which would affect every student in the district.

Unfortunately, this discussion of Toscano’s future will likely be moved to executive session as a personnel matter, leaving taxpayers to wonder if she and she alone failed in her duties or was directed by a superior to falsify the documents after this newspaper and local parents requested the records.

According to the press release, “Lykins said that … the delay in obtaining competitive quotes would not have affected the ultimate awarding of the contract.”

Mr. Lykins, there is no way that could possibly be true. To claim it is suggests Lykins already had plans to hire this firm despite the public bidding process, which would be illegal.

Due to Toscano’s deception, three other firms she falsely claimed she contacted never had a chance to bid on the contract. Any or all of them might have offered lower rates or more extensive services. Because the contract never went out to public bid, we also don’t know if other, perhaps even Sedona-based public relations firms might have done the work at a steep discount or even pro bono due to the district’s struggling finances and poor public perception. Instead, the district wasted thousands of taxpayer dollars on a firm hired improperly.

Lykins stated Toscano is “attributing the oversight to the press of district finance and accounting business at the beginning of the school year,” yet her one job is to be fiscally responsible with taxpayers’ money. If she cannot do so, replace her and spend her $71,815 salary on someone who can do the job professionally and legally.

If the problems are state budget cuts and too few staffers, as SOCSD Governing Board member Zachary Richardson stated in a followup story, then rescind Lykins’ $18,500 raise and hire another accountant.

Why was Toscano rushed hire a PR firm at the beginning of the school year anyway? A long-term plan meant to attract students for years to come should have taken months to find just the right specialists.

Toscano’s termination or resignation would demonstrate to parents, taxpayers and potential audit investigators that the district took the steps necessary to rectify this waste of taxpayer funds and the violation of the public trust.

Christopher Fox Graham

Managing Editor