Audit into Oklahoma's use of federal funds leads to more questions
(The Center Square) - A 256-page audit into how Oklahoma officials used the Governor's Emergency Education Relief Fund led to more questions that an investigative audit could answer.
State Auditor Cindy Byrd said she was aware of problems with one of the five programs tapped to receive the funds, but an audit of the state's spending of federal dollars found the misuse of money for the Stay In Schools program. The program offered emergency tuition assistance to families affected by the COVID-19 emergency. Through emails and communications, the auditors determined that an open house was held at five schools before the submission process went live August 10, 2020.
"What's important about this is the 'Stay in School' program was marketed on a first-come, first-serve basis and the criteria was that you had to meet the income threshold, the percentage of the poverty level, and that you also had to attest on the application process that you had suffered a financial hardship due to COVID," Byrd said. "As we went through and started looking through this, we noticed that, based on the date that it was open to the general public on August 10, there were almost 500 submissions made early. Part of those were for the five exception schools. At this time, it is undetermined who made the call to allow five exception schools to have access to early submission. That will be part of the investigative audit."
The audit found that 657 families who met the income requirements did not receive assistance because the money was already exhausted.
While the problems with the "Stay in School" program was a new discovery, the federal Department of Education found questionable spending last year in a separate program called the Bridge the Gap.
The $8 million Bridge the Gap program, also paid for with GEER funds, gave $1,500 to 5,000 families to purchase school-related items. The program was overseen by a private company that was given an $18 million contract that did not go through a competitive bidding process, according to the audit.
The federal government told the state last year that $650,000 must be returned after it was discovered the grants were used to purchase non-school related items such as furniture and electronics. The new discoveries could put the state in danger of returning more money to the federal government.
"We looked further, we looked at 100 percent, and what we found was that number rose to $1.8 million," Bryd said. "Now $1.7 million was spent on non-educational items. The rest of that has to do with someone getting a duplicate award, maybe someone not meeting the income eligibility requirement, so that number did rise to be closer to $1.8 million."
The federal government will determine if any money should be returned.
An investigative audit of the GEER funds by Byrd is underway and could take an average of six months, depending on the cooperation of the agencies involved, she said.
The results will be turned over to Attorney General Gentner Drummond, who has been vocal about his concerns with the GEER funds. He dismissed a lawsuit against ClassWallet in January, saying it was without merit.
"It is clear that a number of state actors and other individuals are ultimately responsible for millions in misspent federal relief dollars," Drummond said at the time.