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Millions in school COVID-19 relief funds unspent | News

Nearly $18 million in federal coronavirus relief funds for education has been in Gov. Kevin Stitt’s hands since January 2021 but has yet to be spent to help Oklahoma students recover from the pandemic.

An effort to select projects has stalled while state officials work with federal agencies to stay in compliance. The state’s handling of an earlier allocation drew scrutiny from federal watchdogs.

Even if projects are announced soon, the deadline for awardees to spend all funds is Sept. 30, 2023.

U.S. Department of Education placed conditions on how Oklahoma could dole out its second allocation worth $17.7 million due to state officials’ lack of communication with federal monitors and inability to account for the nearly $40 million received under the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund in 2020. The department has not provided Oklahoma Watch and The Frontier details on those conditions.

State officials in December solicited ideas to spend the money through an email addressed to “education stakeholders.”

Organizations that submitted ideas have waited months for a response. It’s already too late to start the projects for the fall semester. One project to give teachers classroom grants was completed anyway by the state Education Department, without the governor’s funds.

If the $17.7 million for Oklahoma is not spent by next fall, the funds will have to be returned to the U.S. Department of Education. GEER II comes from the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, Congress’ second round of pandemic relief aid. The fund’s purpose is to provide emergency assistance to students and families through school districts, colleges and universities and other education-related organizations.

Governors had one year from receiving the funds to allocate to K-12 districts or other education organizations or set up grant programs. That deadline came and went without any public announcement.

A federal audit issued last month found Oklahoma failed to follow program rules and properly oversee its first GEER allocation. The $8 million Bridge the Gap Digital Wallet program lacked oversight and safeguards against fraud, allowing parents to purchase miscellaneous items like furniture and televisions when funds were supposed to provide learning materials for students.

Now, state officials are awaiting feedback from federal agencies to ensure the process of awarding GEER II funds remains in compliance with federal regulations, said Caden Cleveland, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Enterprise Services. Oklahoma still is within the expected timeframe parameters set by the federal government for the obligation of GEER II dollars, he said.

State Chief Operating Officer Steven Harpe led the committee tasked with evaluating Oklahoma’s proposals and coming up with a plan for the funds, according to the email. Harpe declined an interview for this story.

Cleveland said Harpe and others in his office are working with federal agencies on an audit of the GEER funds and the results “will largely dictate next steps of GEER II for our state.”

Other committee members included Amanda Rodriguez, who was at the time the state chief financial officer, and Ryan Walters, Oklahoma’s secretary of education.

Walters was instrumental in creating the programs funded by the first round of GEER dollars. Walters is running for state superintendent and will face off against Shawnee Public Schools Superintendent April Grace in the Aug. 23 runoff.

Missed opportunities

Governors are supposed to award the funds to the entities “most significantly impacted by coronavirus” and make criteria used in those decisions publicly available.

In an effort to collect ideas for the $17.7 million, state officials sent an email to members of the media and others who have signed up to receive emails from the Office of Management and Enterprise Services.

It didn’t go out directly to the groups most closely connected to education: the state Department of Education, Oklahoma State School Boards Association, Oklahoma Education Association, Professional Oklahoma Educators or the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration, according to a list of recipients.

Harpe wrote in the email that submissions were due Dec. 20, 2021, to allow the committee to review the proposals; final approval would be completed “no later than Jan. 31, 2022.”

Committee members said they would prioritize ideas that provided direct relief to students and families disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 or addressed the teacher shortage, teacher retention, scaling best practices and learning loss.

Nineteen project proposals were provided to Oklahoma Watch and The Frontier under an Open Records Act request.

The state Education Department submitted three total; one project proposed giving classroom teachers grants of $1,000 each through DonorsChoose, an online crowdfunding platform. The department said it would like to use $3 million from the governor’s funds combined with $3 million of its own funds and a possible match from donors for a total of $9 million.

DonorsChoose submitted its own proposal for $5 million in GEER II funding.

After the state’s approval deadline passed with no response, the Education Department went forward with a DonorsChoose project on its own in February, awarding more than 7,500 teachers grants of up to $800 each.

The Education Department distributed $6 million in three days, a national record for DonorsChoose, the organization said.

“Oklahoma teachers submitted almost 8,000 DonorsChoose projects in just the first day. This is an uptake rate we’ve never seen before in the history of DonorsChoose,” DonorsChoose founder Charles Best said in a press release.

One teacher used the funds to purchase headphones for her students to use during classroom computer time; another bought math manipulatives for pre-K students.

A look at some proposals

Programs in other states are underway using these relief dollars, providing grants to career and technical centers, classroom grants for teachers, and providing support services to students with severe cognitive disabilities.

Oklahoma is one of 11 states that hasn’t reported spending GEER II funds as of June 30, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s ESF Transparency Portal.

Many of the ideas would address critical education needs in the state.

Oklahoma Department of Education proposed two other projects, in addition to the classroom grants. One would use $1.7 million to develop a micro credential program for educators and another would expend $2 million on a virtual coaching and mentoring program for new teachers.

Other organizations proposed using the funds to expand broadband to rural students, pay and hire special education teachers at a school for students with autism and purchase online learning products.

Boys and Girls Clubs of Oklahoma City proposed remodeling a building in Capitol Hill for students to use after school.

Oklahoma Christian University asked for $2 million to award scholarships to students in its paraprofessional to teacher degree program.

Scissortail Community Development Corporation proposed using the entire $17.7 million to give private school scholarships to low-income and minority students and students with disabilities — similar to the governor’s Stay in School program funded with $10 million from the first GEER award.

Federal auditors’ findings

The fallout from Stitt’s handling of the first round of funding under GEER has continued.

On Tuesday, a state lawmaker filed a lawsuit against OMES, alleging the state has refused to provide him details on the GEER expenditures. Rep. Logan Phillips, R-Mounds, states in the lawsuit, filed in Oklahoma County District Court, that he submitted a request for the information under the Oklahoma Open Records Act in May to Stitt and Walters and “no response was ever received.”

According to an email provided by the governor’s office, Stitt’s legal department replied to Phillips a week later, stating “our office does not possess responsive records” and referred him to Harpe. OMES says its staff tried to set up a meeting with Phillips but he didn’t show up.

In a federal audit issued in July, auditors recommended clawing back $650,000 and requiring Oklahoma to review another $5.5 million in purchases in the Digital Wallet program to determine if additional funds were misspent.

Digital Wallet provided $1,500 grants to low-income families for educational supplies, but a lack of controls and oversight allowed purchases of TVs, home appliances, gaming consoles and many other items not for student learning, as first revealed in an investigation by Oklahoma Watch and The Frontier.

ClassWallet, a Florida company, managed Digital Wallet and the Stay in School fund. The state on Aug. 5 filed a lawsuit against the company, alleging they breached their contract. But the auditors found it was the state’s responsibility to monitor the funds, and state officials had access to ClassWallet’s platform and spending information but no one from Oklahoma checked it until the program was nearly over.

State officials have agreed to make several changes in its processes of awarding grants in response to the audit, including using a rubric to award funds in line with the intended purpose, and better monitoring and oversight of grant recipients, as well as improved management of funds.

Kate Vesper, Stitt’s press secretary, said the state is working diligently to follow the federal agencies’ recommendations and should be able to award projects in time. “We are in compliance with the timeframe parameters set by the federal government,” she said.

This story in a partnership between Oklahoma Watch and The Frontier.

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