Budget & Tax

Ray Carter | October 19, 2022

Hofmeister criticized for withholding COVID spending records

Ray Carter

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister withheld information on billions of dollars in spending for nearly two months, and only provided the requested information after state Rep. Chad Caldwell notified the media.

The incident is just the latest in which Hofmeister has failed to promptly comply with state government-transparency law.

On Sept. 1, Caldwell sent a letter to Hofmeister and her general counsel requesting agency records related to federal COVID funds. The state of Oklahoma has received more than $2 billion combined for schools in three rounds of federal COVID-bailout funding since 2020.

Caldwell specifically asked for the total amount of federal dollars received; total amount distributed; how much remains unspent; a description of each program receiving funds and the school districts impacted; and a description of the process of how each program was selected, including any related bidding process. He also asked for the total amount of encumbered funds, a list of programs those funds are encumbered for, and the distribution schedule for those funds.

Caldwell requested that the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) provide the information by Sept. 30, giving the agency the entirety of the month to produce the information. Caldwell said he received an email Sept. 2 from Carolyn Thompson, director of government affairs and deputy chief of staff at OSDE, saying his request had been received and the department would begin working to compile the information and hoped to have it to him by the end of September. On Oct. 3, Caldwell received a follow-up email saying the agency was still working on gathering the information requested and he should have it by the end of that week, Oct. 7.

When he had still not received the requested information by Oct. 19, Caldwell issued a press release that day discussing Hofmeister’s failure to produce the records.

“This is information that should be easy to get,” Caldwell said. “Yet the state department has failed to comply with a simple request for information. Legislators hear from our schools all the time about the need for more funding, and it appears we have money that has yet to be distributed to help them meet their needs. Unfortunately, due to the lack of response from the department of education, there is no way for us to know how much we have already spent or what to tell our schools about how much help is still to come. We have no accounting of where we are in the process.”

Caldwell said OSDE produced the requested records 24 minutes after that statement was publicly distributed through his press release .

“Unfortunately, this feels like there is a pattern here of the department being less than transparent,” Caldwell said.

This is not the only example of Hofmeister failing to provide public documents in a timely manner.

For a year now, Hofmeister has failed to produce public documents related to COVID, including documents related to an agency proposal that would have forced the closure of schools across Oklahoma for most of two school years had the plan been adopted and maintained. (The State Board of Education declined to impose Hofmeister’s plan as a mandate despite her request to do so.)

Hofmeister’s plan recommended school closures when just 0.01439 percent of residents in a county tested positive for COVID and mandated closure when just 0.025 percent of the county population tested positive for the virus.

That threshold was so low that all schools in Cimarron County would have been ordered to cease in-person instruction if just four individuals in the 1,834 square-mile county contracted COVID, and state data show that schools in every county in Oklahoma would have been mandated or pressured to cease in-person instruction for more than half of the 76-week period from Sept. 24, 2020, to March 1, 2022, under the guidelines contained in Hofmeister’s plan.

On Oct. 15, 2021, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs filed an open-records request for electronic copies of Hofmeister’s state email that contained the terms “COVID,” “covid,” “coronavirus,” “quarantine,” “quarantining,” “vaccine,” “mandate” and “mask” that were either sent or received from March 1, 2020, to Oct. 15, 2021.

The agency acknowledged receipt of the records request via email the same day but has yet to produce any documents.

Under Hofmeister’s leadership, the Oklahoma State Department of Education has also delayed release of other records.

The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs submitted an open-records request to the Oklahoma State Department of Education on July 20, 2021, asking for the number of teaching certificates revoked since 2015, and how many were revoked due to a 2015 law that required school districts to report any incident where school officials decided to fire or not re-employ a teacher based on “grounds that could form the basis of criminal charges” related to the abuse of children.

OSDE did not provide a response until March 4, 2022, more than seven months later, when officials finally revealed that 178 individuals had lost teaching certificates since 2015, although the agency said it did not track how many cases were related to the 2015 state law.

Hofmeister has also been criticized for failing to properly monitor state school spending.

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.

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].

When the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency (LOFT) conducted a cursory review of OSDE’s Oklahoma Cost Accounting System (OCAS), which compiles financial data from all public-school districts, LOFT reviewers quickly identified significant irregularities, including reports showing Oklahoma schools spent nearly a quarter-million dollars on firearms that were masked as nutrition services and other non-weapon categories.

LOFT officials told lawmakers that OSDE has provided little to no meaningful oversight of school spending.

“After speaking with school-finance staff and reviewing OSDE’s processes, LOFT arrived at a conclusion similar to that of the auditor,” Bradley Ward, program evaluator for LOFT, told legislators. “There is oversight of educational funding by OSDE, but not true accountability.”

As part of the review of Epic, state auditors also reported that someone with supervisory authority at OSDE had overruled lower-level employees who questioned an Epic spending report, allowing allegedly improper spending to occur. However, auditors said OSDE officials failed to identify who gave that order.

During a public presentation in October 2020, Brenda Holt, audit manager for the Special Investigative Unit of the state auditor’s office, said, “We interviewed the three individuals that were involved in that decision. As we understood it, honestly, we got three different answers.”

When subsequently questioned by lawmakers, Hofmeister disputed the claims of state auditors, saying, “Actually, I don’t believe there was an order.”

Questions about OSDE’s financial oversight under Hofmeister prompted nearly two dozen lawmakers to request a state audit of OSDE, which Gov. Kevin Stitt soon requested. That audit remains ongoing. Caldwell was among the lawmakers who requested it.

Caldwell said policymakers need to know how federal COVID money has been spent in schools to ensure the money is used properly and to the maximum student benefit.

“It’s imperative we get this money to our schools to help our students recover from the harm caused from the decision to close down our schools,” Caldwell said. “It’s equally important that Oklahomans know how this public money is being spent.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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