Sept. 22, 2021

Behind Gov. Stitt’s Request to Audit the Education Department

State Superintendent of Education Joy Hofmeister speaks about the state budget in the Blue Room at the State Capitol on May 15, 2019. Gov. Kevin Stitt is seen on her left. Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch

By Jennifer Palmer | Education/Investigative Reporter

The fallout from the Epic Charter Schools saga continues. Gov. Kevin Stitt made a new audit request last week, this one focused on the state Department of Education. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister called the move “another attack on Oklahoma’s public education system.”

The call for an audit stems from a finding in the 2020 Epic audit which showed the online charter school was miscoding expenses to avoid penalties for exceeding the state’s 5% cap on administrative spending.

Stitt, in his request, asked auditors to identify all sources of revenue flowing into the department, determine if the revenues were properly allocated and expenditures were legal, and determine whether the department and school districts are properly coding items in the Oklahoma Cost Accounting System.

It’s likely to be one of the deepest dives into the department’s finances, ever. However, Hofmeister says the department has undergone “more than 20 financial, compliance and programmatic review audits” in the past 6 1/2 years. And, she said, Secretary of Education Ryan Walters approves each expenditure over $25,000 on a weekly basis.

Epic, which is reporting 38,000 students this year, has undertaken a number of reforms based on that audit, including severing ties with its for-profit management company. An unusual grand jury report urged the legislature to act quickly, spurring a last ditch but unsuccessful effort to pass a bill strengthening state oversight of charter schools.

State Auditor Cindy Byrd said in a statement Thursday: “I deeply appreciate Governor Stitt for his confidence in the findings of the Epic Schools audit report released last year.”

With the audit of the Education Department expected to take about a year, its release will likely come right before the 2022 election. Stitt is up for re-election and Walters is running for state superintendent. Hofmeister can’t seek re-election due to term limits but rumors have swirled for months that she will run for governor. She has publicly denied it, however (like on this NonDoc podcast from April.)

What are your thoughts about the audit? Should the Education Department face more scrutiny? As always, email and DMs open. Have a great week.

— Jennifer Palmer

In Focus

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Educators returned to school with a layer of protection unavailable most of last year — the COVID vaccine. But teachers who have experienced breakthrough infections illustrate the limits of personal responsibility. [Read More…]

What I’m Reading

  • Rapid coronavirus testing rolling out to schools, health department says. [Public Radio Tulsa]
  • Gov. Kevin Stitt has requested an audit of the state Department of Education, specifically looking at the school cost accounting system. [The Oklahoman]
  • The ACLU is asking the Lawton school district to reverse the suspension of two students over the national anthem. [The Black Wall Street Times]
  • Kids under 12 could soon be eligible for the coronavirus vaccine, but how many parents will buy in? [The New York Times]
  • School hiring headaches leading to shortages of bus drivers, custodians and substitutes. [Education Week]

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