Discover more from Oklahoma Columnist, by Clay Horning
Cindy Byrd did her job, making it others' jobs to get to the bottom of Stitt's, Walters' and perhaps others' rotten state business
A while back, under the headline “Ryan Walters is too stupid (or crooked) to be our state’s superintendent of education,” I tried convincing voters they couldn’t possibly want to elect him to the post he now claims.
I now wish, given the actual language of the job he continues to screw up at every turn, the final word of that headline had not been “education” but two words, “public instruction.”
At least the reasons I offered why he’d be a disaster remain in play, so there’s that.
Also, given the report and press release state auditor and inspector Cindy Byrd dropped Tuesday, the story I wrote under that headline has been proven incomplete.
For example, allow me to quote myself from that 10-month-old column.
“Forget that even before [Governor Kevin] Stitt tapped him to be education secretary, Walters had already helped ClassWallet, a Florida company, win a no-bid contract to administer federal funds given the state to defray coronavirus pandemic educational costs. And then, while state education secretary, more than 10 percent of audited funds from the program were found to have purchased non-educational material like furniture, appliances and televisions, and another $10 million (of $18 million total) paid for private school vouchers.”
Because, it turns out, the administration of that $18 million in federal funding, part of the GEER program — Governor’s Education Relief Fund — was far more insidious than that.
Yes, there was the scandal surrounding ClassWallet, as Byrd explained Tuesday, singling out Walters for doing state business incompetently even before he became he a state employee.
“Proper system controls were offered by the digital wallet vendor to limit the families’ purchases to education-related items but those controls were declined by the individual placed in charge of the … program,” she said. “We found that $1.7 million was spent on various non-educational items.”
The “individual placed in charge,” of course, was Walters, then in his executive director’s role of Every Kid Counts Oklahoma, the non-profit the state outsourced to administrate $8 million in COVID relief funds designed to defray education costs, and the job he held on to, too, even after joining Stitt’s cabinet as education secretary.
So, if you’re keeping score at home, that’s $1.7 million in mismanaged funds rather than the original $652,720 the feds had already identified, kicking off the scandal in the first place.
In retrospect, no shocker.
Walters is horrendous with state money, particularly federal money earmarked to become state money.
But the insidious part?
Go back to that paragraph from that 10-month-old story and reacquaint yourself with the $10 million in federal funds Stitt and Walters turned into private school vouchers.
Bad enough they’d hijack millions in federal dollars and place them toward private education in a state public education serves more than 94 percent of students.
Bad enough they’d jump start their very controversial policy of using public money to benefit private school students and families long before it became policy passed by the state legislature.
Bad enough they’d take federal money and put it into their own pet projects, period.
And still, nowhere near as bad, conniving, cynical and disingenuous as Byrd’s state audit now paints Walters, or Stitt, the two in tandem or, perhaps, some nefarious third party with the goods on both to make what happened with those private school voucher funds happen.
That specific $10 million comprised the SIS — Stay in School — program, a sub-program of the GEER program, and here’s the money passage from Byrd’s Tuesday release.
Read it all:
“Stay in School (SIS) had a budget of $10 million to help low-income families cover the families’ portion of school tuition in order to keep their child(ren) in their existing private school. The program was designed to assist 1,500 or more low-income families who could qualify for up to $6,500 dollars per student.
“The audit uncovered a deliberate operation to give selected private schools and individuals preferential treatment by allowing early access for application submission prior to the date this program was offered to the general public. It was also determined that awards were provided to 1,073 students whose family attested that they had not suffered an economic hardship due to the pandemic.
“Sixty-five percent (65%) of the total budget, $6.5 million worth of grant funds, were identified as questionable because the grant objectives were disregarded. As a result, 657 students of low-income families who qualified for the SIS program did not get the financial assistance they requested because the funds were exhausted. Of the $6.5 million in question, $1.8 million was paid to private schools in excess of the families’ tuition responsibility. SAI has reported $6.5 million dollars in questioned costs.”
Oklahoma Columnist, by Clay Horning is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Did Walters pull a fast one on the governor and give preferential treatment to friends, donors and his own warped sense of who needed taking care of?
Did Stitt, by himself or in tandem with Walters, pull a fast one on the whole state, rewarding his friends and donors, perhaps some of the same families whose children he recruited for this infamous picture taken soon after he’d saved girls’ and women’s sports from villainous trans athletes who don’t exist?
Just think about what Byrd reported:
1) SIS was treated like a freaking IPO, offering $6,500 per student to favored early appliers.
2) Almost 1,100 students who did not meet the criteria to receive $6,500 on their behalf received $6,500 on their behalf.
3) More than 650 students the program was designed help were left in the cold, by commission rather than omission.
4) Of a $10-million program, 65 percent appears to have been fraudulently given away.
And thought it may be difficult to hand out fault by percentage, anybody with any piece of it is despicable.
Offering private school vouchers and private school tax credits to families who send their children to private schools is for the greater good, they’ve told us; fosters healthy competition among schools, benefiting all students, public and private, they’ve told us; takes the lid off private education for those historically locked out through no fault of their own, they’ve told us.
Yet, what do they do?
They fix the process, favor the same folks would could always afford private education in the first place, becoming benefactors to interest groups of which they already belong, giving not a you-know-what about the sprit of their own high-minded rhetoric because, of course, they never believed it in the first place.
Oh, yeah, in addition to the $1.7 million squandered through ClassWallet and the $6.5 million incorrectly administered through the SIS project, Byrd found another $21.1 million granted by the federal government to the state spent fraudulently, or questionably, or without oversight, or with reckless disregard or all of the above.
The ball was in Cindy Byrd’s court.
She did her job.
Perhaps now it’s in attorney general Gentner Drummond’s, not to mention the legislature, which has the power to impeach and convict, or maybe the courts, because everything gets there eventually. Still, more than all of them, the voters, who put these jokers into power in the first place.
It never wasn’t.