Education agency declared a ‘dumpster fire’ under Hofmeister
May 2, 2023
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters told lawmakers that much of the early work of his administration has been focused on addressing problems left behind by his Democratic predecessor, former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister.
“I’m going to be real direct: It was an absolute dumpster fire when we got to this agency,” Walters said. “Joy Hofmeister had run this administration, this agency, into the ground.”
Walters discussed the challenges facing his agency and efforts to improve academic outcomes in Oklahoma schools during a nearly two-and-a-half hour meeting of the House Appropriations and Budget Committee.
Unlike his predecessor, Walters personally handled all questions presented rather than passing them off to staff.
Since his term began in January, Walters said much effort at the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) has been focused on improving financial accounting and oversight along with restructuring.
At the end of Hofmeister’s term, he said there was excessive spending on staff, limited financial oversight, and failure to perform routine duties that may have even included failure to promptly investigate and strip accused pedophiles of their teaching licenses.
The Oklahoma State Department of Education has 416 employee positions. But under Hofmeister, Walters said nearly two-thirds of those employees were routinely physically absent from the agency’s headquarters because Hofmeister allowed remote work due to COVID, despite COVID having long since subsided by January 2023.
“Immediately, upon the first minute when I came in office, we brought all employees back in the agency,” Walters said. “We had 268 employees that weren’t at work. They worked remotely.”
He said the remote system had resulted in an unresponsive agency culture that left many school districts without support.
“Not a week goes by that I don’t get a text from an administrator that thanks me for that,” Walters said. “They talk about the turnaround time. They were trying to find somebody in some division that it would take them days and days to call and get a hold of them.”
Of the 416 positions at the Oklahoma State Department of Education, Walters said 37 individuals resigned when the party affiliation of the state superintendent changed and seven others have since been fired.
Turnover is normal with any change in administration, especially when the partisan affiliation of an agency leader changes, but Walters also said some staff changes were needed to improve results.
“We are 49th in education outcomes—49th,” Walters said. “I’m going to tell you, that meant some folks need to go.”
He said a financial review is also underway to determine if prior expenditures were justified.
“Joy Hofmeister gave dramatic raises on her way out the door and did a huge hiring spree there on her way out,” Walters said.
Since his term began, Walters said 17 positions have been eliminated at the agency, generating $1.3 million in savings.
He said the agency currently has nine vacancies and the interview process is underway for several of those positions.
Under Hofmeister, Walters said there was limited financial oversight.
“We inherited an agency where there was no check from senior leadership over spending,” Walters said. “There were literally 42 people who could make their own decision-making in regard to spending without being checked by anyone above them in the agency.”
With a physically absent workforce and limited oversight under Hofmeister, Walters said some basic agency functions appeared to fall through the cracks or agency response time was lackluster.
Among the most concerning trends was a large backlog of requests to strip teachers of their licenses due to allegations of misconduct that could include inappropriate relationships with students.
“When I came into office, one of the first things we saw was stacks and stacks of these suspensions, or submissions to suspend licensures, that hadn’t been issued,” Walters said. “There hadn’t been anything done with them.”
In other areas, school districts’ finances were unnecessarily stretched thinner because of a slow response from OSDE personnel, Walters said.
He noted the agency took three days and longer to reimburse school districts under Hofmeister. That turnaround has now been reduced to payment within 48 hours.
“For some districts, especially in rural Oklahoma, some of those reimbursements are a big deal,” Walters said.
Management of grants also appeared haphazard.
“This agency, when we came on board, there was no process in place on how to apply for these grants,” Walters said. “There were grants that would come and go. There were decisions made around whether to apply for one or not apply for one that, again, there was no description of how decisions were made.”
He said the agency is now developing a clear set of public criteria that will allow lawmakers and school officials to understand how grant evaluations are conducted.
Prior reviews indicated management problems under Hofmeister
Hofmeister was originally elected as a Republican in 2014 but switched parties to run for governor as a Democrat in 2022.
During her tenure as state superintendent, academic outcomes in Oklahoma fell, across the board, even as state spending on schools increased dramatically.
In 2022, when the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency (LOFT) conducted a cursory review of the state’s Oklahoma Cost Accounting System (OCAS), a program that compiles financial data from all public-school districts, officials quickly identified significant irregularities.
Among other things, LOFT officials found that during Hofmeister’s tenure officials at the Oklahoma State Department of Education had allowed schools to report nearly a quarter-million dollars in spending on firearms as “child nutrition programs and services,” “instruction,” “psychological services,” “curriculum development services” and “state and federal relation services,” among other categories.
A 2020 state audit of Epic Charter Schools said that the OSDE typically “accepted at face value” any data reported to the agency by school districts “without on-site follow-up,” and that in some instances “a process to verify the accuracy of the reported information did not exist” at the Oklahoma State Department of Education under Hofmeister.
The audit said the Oklahoma State Department of Education had “no process in place to evaluate actual compliance with the written policies and procedures, or with applicable laws, statutes, or Administrative Rules” that govern the use of funds [emphasis in original].
During her gubernatorial campaign, Hofmeister was also found to have used the state agency’s resources to direct Oklahomans to her campaign’s social-media posts, leading one lawmaker to call for an investigation into whether she violated state law by using taxpayer funds for campaign purposes.
“We continue to fix the mess and disasters that Joy Hofmeister left us and to make this an education entity that can help support our schools,” Walters said.
Walters’ focus extends beyond fixing Hofmeister’s “mess”
While outlining the structural challenges being dealt with at the agency, Walters also discussed with lawmakers his efforts to improve academic outcomes and reduce the teacher shortage in Oklahoma.
Walters said his priorities include improving reading outcomes, providing incentives to attract the best teachers to Oklahoma, and providing school choice to all families so parents have an increased likelihood that their children will receive the best and most appropriate education possible.
“We proposed $100 million for early literacy programs,” Walters said. “We believe that it is essential to ensure success for our kids that (they) can read on grade level by third grade.”
He said that effort will include additional training in phonics-based instruction, typically referred to as the “science of reading,” for more educators.
Walters’ proposed budget for OSDE included funding to provide performance-pay increases of up to $10,000 to teachers.
He also recently unveiled a separate plan to provide signing bonuses of $15,000 to $50,000 for certain teachers who make a five-year commitment. That program is targeted at certified teachers new to the profession, certified teachers returning to the profession, and certified teachers moving to Oklahoma from out of state, primarily those teaching PreK-3 and special education, two of the biggest shortages areas in Oklahoma’s educator workforce. The size of the signing bonus would be based in part on years of experience, specialty, and if a school is rural or in a high-poverty area.
The signing bonus program, which is a one-time effort, is funded with existing federal funds as well as federal COVID-bailout funds provided to Oklahoma.
“We have already had over 100 applicants—within 48 hours,” Walters said. “We’ve got applicants from in state, out of state. This program is already off to tremendous successes in getting high-quality teachers in our classrooms.”
He noted Oklahoma has long had a shortage of special-education teachers even as roughly one in five students is identified as having some form of learning challenge.
“We’ve never been close in 30 years to filling our special-ed openings,” Walters said.