Federal audit criticizes how Oklahoma spent education relief funds

TULSA, Okla. — A federal audit is criticizing how Governor Kevin Stitt’s administration spent COVID relief dollars meant for education. The audit said the state misspent $31 million out of $39.9 million of the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief money, known as GEER.

The funds mentioned the U.S Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) in report are from March 2020 through August 2021. The report recommends the state return more than $650,000 because grant money was spent on non-education related items like televisions, gaming systems, Apple watches and Christmas trees by families who received the help.

Documents show the audit also calls for the state to audit an additional $5.4 million for possible misspent money, and calls for a refund.

Federal auditors want the state to return at least $650,000 of the GEER Fund. In the report released Tuesday, it said the state returned more than $919,000 of it’s $39.9 million of GEER Grant Funds last February. The money was supposed to be used for “those most significantly impacted by the coronavirus or deemed essential for carrying out emergency educational services, providing childcare and early childhood education, providing social and emotional support, or protecting education-related jobs,” according to the report.

The OIG said $8 million in GEER dollars awarded to Oklahoma State Department of Education was used to support school districts impacted by COVID-19. The remaining $31 million, the audit said, was misspent. Including $8 million for the “Bridge the Gap Digital Wallet” program which provided 5,000 families with $1,500 grants to help buy their kids computers and other supplies for the 2021 school year.

For the “Bridge the Gap Digital Wallet” program, the state, provided the company ClassWallet a no-bid contract to send out the grants to families. The audit said Secretary of Education Ryan Walters declined using pre-approved purchases option on ClassWallet, resulting in families able to buy non-educational items with the grant money.

The audit report finds the state failed to follow federal guidelines in four of five educational COVID-19 relief programs. Report documents show more poor record keeping by ClassWallet for the “Stay in School” program. The program provided vouchers up to $6,500 for low-income students attending private schools during the pandemic. Auditors said the state couldn’t provide supporting documents to show eight of the 10 students who received the grant were enrolled and attended private schools.

In a statement from Kate Vesper, who’s with Governor Stitt’s office, said the state is continuing to work with OIG and adds this is caused by the failures of contractors like ClassWallet.

“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,” Vesper said.

In a statement from the Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction, Joy Hofmeister, said, “Governor Stitt weaponizes audits to distract from his administration’s own self-dealing, incompetence and arrogant disregard for the law. This federal audit speaks for itself.”

During the time in question, Secretary Walters, wasn’t working as the Secretary of Education. He was executive director for a non-profit, “Every Kid Counts Oklahoma.”

Walters did not reply when FOX23 asked for a comment.