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Federal officials slam Stitt management of federal education COVID-19 relief grants

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (center) and his Secretary of Education Ryan Walters (right) talk with Jeb Bush (left) in May 2022.
The Governor's Office
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (center) and his Secretary of Education Ryan Walters (right) talk with Jeb Bush (left) in May 2022.

Federal auditors have recommended clawing back hundreds of thousands of dollars disbursed by Gov. Kevin Stitt as part of federally funded coronavirus relief money grants.

The auditors published a 69-page report Tuesday that lays out a number of failures by Oklahoma in distributing a nearly $40 million coronavirus-relief package by the Stitt administration.

The review by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General found $650,000 in purchases auditors say were misspent and included items like Christmas trees, smart watches and hundreds of televisions.

The OIG investigators wrote they are further reviewing $5.5 million in purchases.

The auditors found the company that helped distribute that money - ClassWallet - also offered to put in safeguards to ensure the funds were properly spent. But auditors wrote Oklahoma didn’t use them. The state’s work with ClassWallet was overseen by Secretary of Education Ryan Walters, currently a Republican candidate for State Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Stitt’s spokeswoman Kate Vespar said in a statement that his administration was reviewing the report and will collaborate with federal investigators moving forward.

“The governor is committed to transparency and accountability in state government and has called for more audits than any other governor in our state’s history,” she said in a statement. “The state has been proactive in monitoring and ensuring appropriate use of Oklahoma taxpayer dollars, and an internal audit was initiated several months ago, that is ongoing for the Oklahoma GEER funds. It has been made apparent through demand letters that if it is determined that a vendor failed to ensure funds were properly utilized or that any individual misused funds received for educational purposes, the state will take swift and appropriate action.”

In 2020, the Stitt administration was given nearly $40 million in federal money as part of the Governor's Emergency Education Relief Fund. Much of the money in question was distributed through the Bridge the Gap Digital Wallet program, which gave $1,500 grants to low-income families for educational purchases.

Stitt’s administration used those funds to pay for things like private school scholarships and a grant program for individual families. Similar programs were floated this session in a school voucher measure that divided Republicans.

But the policies themselves weren’t really questioned by federal auditors. Instead, it was often the administration of the funds that was critiqued throughout the report.

“Oklahoma did not award all of its GEER grant funds in accordance with the CARES Act, federal regulations, department guidance, and GEER grant conditions,” auditors wrote.

Oklahoma officials could not provide supporting documentation that its distributed money went to eligible entities that “aligned with the purpose of the GEER grant fund.” One exception was money Stitt distributed through the Oklahoma State Department of Education for technology help for schools.

For Stitt’s “Stay in School” program, which offered private school scholarships to families worth $6,500, there was no documentation that students actually used the money on private school tuition.

Additionally, auditors checked the eligibility of 10 random families who took part in the program, and were unable to determine if eight were actually able to participate.

In a response to a draft by federal investigators Oklahoma officials “did not state whether [they] agreed or disagreed with the findings and recommendations in the draft report. However, Oklahoma identified corrective actions that it has taken or plans to take.”

Previous reporting by nonprofit news outlets Oklahoma Watch and The Frontier has shown Oklahoma officials also didn’t spend all of the money as part of the GEER program, ultimately returning almost $3 million of unspent money intended to help Oklahoma students and educators.

Robby Korth joined KOSU as its news director in November 2022.
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