Following an explosive report on Epic charter schools last year, Governor Kevin Stitt requested an investigative audit of the Oklahoma State Department of Education.
The audit, which the governor announced Thursday, would focus on the state agency’s financial oversight of public schools.
“As we make record investments in our public education system, students and parents deserve to know that their schools are spending their tax dollars appropriately and according to the law,” Stitt said in a statement. .
Twenty-two Republican lawmakers urged the governor in November to request an audit of the state’s education department, fearing that a lack of financial control “permeates our entire public education system.”
The Department of Education receives the most funding of any state agency in Oklahoma, with more than $ 3 billion in public funds allocated to it this year. This is the department’s first investigative audit in its history, according to Stitt’s announcement.
The agency did not immediately return a request for comment Thursday afternoon.
The department came under scrutiny in October after the Oklahoma State Auditor and Inspector’s Office reported that Epic, a virtual charter school system, had chronically exceeded administrative costs and committed widespread financial mismanagement – all with little responsibility on the part of the entities responsible for controlling Epic.
Epic has disputed almost all of the auditor’s report and denies any intentional wrongdoing.
“I deeply appreciate Governor Stitt for his confidence in the findings of the Epic Schools audit report released last year,” State Auditor and Inspector Cindy Byrd said in a statement. “It is clear that the founders of Epic were able to take millions of dollars by manipulating the administrative costs of schools reported to the (state education department).”
Epic cut all ties in May with its co-founders, Ben Harris and David Chaney. The school system terminated its contract with Harris and Chaney’s firm, Epic Youth Services, which had managed and benefited from the virtual charter school since its inception.
Auditors reported that Epic falsely amended its annual financial reports to the state’s education department to hide that it spent more than the state-imposed cap on administrative fees. No public school with more than 1,500 students can devote more than 5% of its funds to administration.
After the audit released last year, public schools superintendent Joy Hofmeister said Epic officials frequently enter financial reports at the last minute before critical deadlines and refuse to answer questions feedback.
Byrd also noted that Epic also failed to cooperate throughout the audit process, an allegation Epic denies.
State education officials raised concerns in 2016 and early 2017 that Epic’s financial records were intentionally inaccurate. Regardless, the state has accepted the virtual charter school’s annual reports “at face value” year after year, according to the audit report.
“There was no process to verify the reported information,” the auditors wrote.
The Department of Education audit has two main purposes, Byrd said.
The first is to identify all sources of revenue coming into the agency, including federal and state funds. It would determine whether the revenues were allocated and spent legally.
The second goal is to ensure that the agency and Oklahoma school districts comply with financial reporting requirements and that state officials provide “timely accountability.”
âUltimately, the purpose of this audit is to ensure that per student spending and education funding gets to the classroom,â Byrd said.
The governor’s audit request comes at a time when Stitt and Hofmeister disagree over COVID-19 policies and the wearing of masks in schools.
Hofmeister has been a strong supporter of school mask mandates while Stitt signed a law to block such demands on students and teachers.
Asked by lawmakers last year, Hofmeister said a small team of education department employees are responsible for managing millions of data points from Oklahoma’s cost accounting system, which schools use to report financial transactions.
To discourage districts from making last-minute changes to their reports, the state’s Department of Education now imposes penalties on anyone who changes their submissions after September 1 before final deadlines hit. the end of the calendar year.
“For this review process, yes it should be more important, but it will take resources and people to be able to do it,” Hofmeister said in a meeting with the House Common Education Committee on 21st of October.
Journalist Nuria Martinez-Keel covers Kindergarten to Grade 12 and higher education throughout the state of Oklahoma. Do you have a story idea for Nuria? She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @NuriaMKeel. Support the work of Nuria and that of fellow Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today at Subscribe.oklahoman.com.