This story was produced in partnership with the nonprofit Oklahoma Newsroom Shows Oklahoma.
Nearly $18 million in federal coronavirus relief dollars for education has been in Governor Kevin Stitt’s hands since January 2021, but has yet to be spent to help Oklahoma students recover from the pandemic.
An effort to select projects has stalled while state officials work with federal agencies to stay in compliance. The manipulation of the state from an earlier allowance caught the attention of federal watchdogs.
Although projects are announced soon, the deadline for winners to spend all funds is September 30, 2023.
The U.S. Department of Education placed conditions on how Oklahoma could distribute its second stipend worth $17.7 million due to state officials’ lack of communication with federal comptrollers. and the failure to account for the nearly $40 million received through the Governor’s Education Emergency Relief Fund (GEER) in 2020. The ministry did not provide Oklahoma Watch and The border details of these conditions.
In December, state officials solicited ideas for spending the money through an email to “education stakeholders.”
Organizations that submitted ideas waited months for a response. It’s already too late to start fall semester projects. A project to provide grants to classroom teachers was carried out by the state Department of Education anyway, without funds from the governor.
If the $17.7 million for Oklahoma is not spent by next fall, the funds will have to be returned to the US Department of Education. GEER 2 comes from the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, the second round of Congressional pandemic relief aid. The purpose of the fund is to provide emergency assistance to students and families through school districts, colleges and universities, and other education-related organizations.
Governors had one year from receiving the funds to allocate them to K-12 districts or other educational organizations or set up grant programs. This deadline came and went without any public announcement.
A federal audit released last month revealed that Oklahoma failed to follow program rules and properly oversee its first GEER allocation. The $8 million Bridge the Gap Digital Wallet program lacked oversight and fraud protection, allowing parents to purchase various items like furniture and TVs while the funds were supposed to provide learning materials for students .
Now state officials are awaiting input from federal agencies to ensure the process for allocating GEER 2 funds remains in line with federal regulations, said Caden Cleveland, spokesperson for the Office of Management and business services. Oklahoma is still within the target time frame set by the federal government for the GEER $2 bond, he said.
State Chief Operating Officer Steven Harpe led the committee to evaluate Oklahoma’s proposals and come up with a plan for the funds, according to the email. Harpe declined an interview for this story.
Cleveland said Harpe and others in his office are working with federal agencies on an audit of GEER funds and the results “will largely dictate the next steps of GEER 2 for our state.”
Other committee members included Amanda Rodriguez, who was the state’s chief financial officer at the time, and Ryan Walters, Oklahoma’s secretary of education.
Walters was instrumental in creating the programs funded by the first round of GEER dollars. Walters is running for state superintendent and will face Shawnee Public Schools Superintendent April Grace in the Aug. 23 runoff.
Governors are supposed to allocate funds to entities “most affected by the coronavirus” and make public the criteria used in those decisions.
In an effort to gather ideas for the $17.7 million, state officials emailed members of the media and others who signed up to receive emails from the Bureau. management and business services.
It was not sent directly to the groups most closely tied to education: the state Department of Education, the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, the Oklahoma Education Association, professional educators in the Oklahoma or the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration, according to a list of recipients. .
Harpe wrote in the email that submissions had to be submitted by December 20, 2021 to allow the committee to review the proposals; final approval would be completed “no later than January 31, 2022”.
Committee members said they would prioritize ideas that provide direct relief to students and families disproportionately affected by COVID-19 or that address teacher shortages, teacher retention, scaling up best practices and learning loss.
Nineteen project proposals were submitted to Oklahoma Watch and The border as part of an Open Records Act request.
The state Department of Education submitted three in total; one project proposed to give teachers scholarships of $1,000 each through DonorsChoose, an online crowdfunding platform. The department said it would like to use $3 million from the governor’s funds combined with $3 million from its own funds and possible donor matching for a total of $9 million.
DonorsChoose submitted their own proposal for $5 million in GEER 2 funding.
After the state approval deadline passed without a response, the Department of Education launched a DonorsChoose project in February, awarding more than 7,500 teacher grants of up to $800 each.
Within hours, one in five Oklahoma teachers had applied for grants from the DonorsChoose project, highlighting the need for classroom funding.
The Department of Education distributed $6 million in three days, a national record for DonorsChoose, the organization said.
“Teachers in Oklahoma submitted nearly 8,000 DonorsChoose projects on day one. This is a turnout we’ve never seen before in DonorsChoose history,” DonorsChoose founder Charles Best said in a press release.
A teacher used the funds to purchase headphones for her students to use during classroom computer use; another purchased math manipulatives for pre-kindergarten students.
A look at some proposals
Programs in other states are underway using these relief dollars, providing grants to career and technical centers, class scholarships for teachers and provide student support services severe cognitive impairment.
Oklahoma is one of 11 states that did not report spending GEER funds June 2 through June 30, according to the US Department of Education. ESF Transparency Portal.
Many of the ideas would address critical education needs in the state.
The Oklahoma Department of Education has proposed two other projects, in addition to classroom grants. One would use $1.7 million to develop a micro-accreditation program for educators and another would spend $2 million on a virtual coaching and mentoring program for new teachers.
Other organizations have offered to use the funds to extend broadband to students in rural areas, pay and hire specialist teachers at a school for autistic students, and purchase e-learning products.
Oklahoma City Boys and Girls Clubs offered to redevelop a building on Capitol Hill for students to use after school.
Oklahoma Christian University has requested $2 million to award scholarships to students in its paraprofessional-to-teacher degree program.
The Scisortail Community Development Corporation has offered to use the full $17.7 million to provide private scholarships to low-income and minority students and students with disabilities — similar to the Governor’s funded Stay in School program with $10 million from the top GEER prize.
Conclusions of federal auditors
The fallout from Stitt’s stewardship of the first round of funding under GEER continued.
On Tuesday, a state legislator filed a lawsuit against OMES, alleging the state refused to provide him with details of GEER spending. Rep. Logan Phillips, R-Mounds, says in the lawsuit, filed in Oklahoma County District Court, that he submitted a request for information under the Oklahoma Open Records Act in May to Stitt and Walters and “no response was ever received”.
According to an email provided by the governor’s office, Stitt’s legal department responded to Phillips a week later, stating that “our office has no reactive records” and referred him to Harpe. OMES says his staff tried to arrange a meeting with Phillips but he didn’t show up.
In a federal audit issued in July, auditors recommended recovering $650,000 and requiring Oklahoma to review an additional $5.5 million in Digital Wallet program purchases to determine if additional funds were badly spent.
Digital Wallet provided $1,500 grants to low-income families for school supplies, but a lack of controls and oversight allowed the purchase of TVs, appliances, game consoles and many other items not intended for student learning, as revealed for the first time in a survey by Oklahoma Watch and The border.
ClassWallet, a Florida company, managed Digital Wallet and the Stay in School fund. On August 5, the state filed a lawsuit against the company, alleging that it breached its contract. But auditors found it was the state’s responsibility to monitor the funds, and state officials had access to ClassWallet’s platform and spending information, but no one from Oklahoma. didn’t check it until the program was almost done.
State officials agreed to make several changes to their grant-making processes in response to the audit, including using a rubric to allocate funds according to purpose, and better monitoring and control of grant recipients, as well as better management of funds. .
Kate Vesper, Stitt’s press secretary, said the state is working diligently to follow recommendations from federal agencies and should be able to award projects in time. “We are within the schedule parameters set by the federal government,” she said.