Four More Points on the Audit
It’s easy as a critic of the way the SDE operates under Janet Barresi to find fault with the latest headline-grabber. Even the Oklahoman took issue with Barresi and her staff.
Undoubtedly, the report released Monday showing that the SDE maintained a slush fund is notable for (a) the poor execution of plans by key staff members; (b) the questionable legality of operating a foundation to sponsor a conference; (c) the insistence by the SDE that State Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones did not have the right to review foundation documents; and (d) the sheer hypocrisy of SDE staff who were critical of Sandy Garrett for doing something similar.
Poor execution – The SDE used staff to form a foundation to oversee the collection and spending of funds related to the Innovations 2011 conference. As Barresi stated Monday, when the report was released, this had been the common practice during the previous administration. Unfortunately, the formation of the foundation was never completed. One problem is that it looks as if a temporary employee (at the time) was put into a position that should have been handled by a full-time, senior staff member. Organizing a conference of this magnitude is a huge undertaking. In the wake of this audit report, that one employee seems to be taking the majority of the heat for all of the problems with the slush fund. Anything involving money should go all the way to the top of the chain of command. Blame falls at each of the layers above this one employee as well.
Questionable legality – The crux of this issue seems to be that state employees raised funds for a private foundation during work hours. This would be no more legal than say using private money to pay the salaries of unofficial employees doing state business, as happened during the spring of 2011, right? Beyond this is the added conflict of companies who bid on state contracts donating funds so you can have your conference. (This happens during campaigns too, by the way.) Whether the law was broken or not will have to be determined later. The ethics are clear though. In order to have the conference in the way the SDE wanted, the donations had to run through a third party. Exhibitor fees would not have, however.
Right to review documents – Since the foundation was never officially created, all fundraising and communication should be colored by the assumption that the work was being done on behalf of the SDE. Clearly, Jones and his staff should have had access to these documents. As the audit closes with questions about the 2012 summer conference, it should also be noted that the SDE held three REAC3H summits during the 2011-12 school year. The first was held in a lavish hotel in Tulsa. At each, lunch was served. Somebody paid for that. Perhaps the records on those events should see the light of day too. I have no reason to believe laws were broken there either, but given the three audit reports this year on the SDE, it seems a call for full transparency is in order.
Hypocrisy – SDE staff seemed giddy in the spring when reports of similar (not exactly the same, since Garrett’s staff successfully completed the formation of a non-profit organization – and Barresi was listed as a board member) reports surfaced involving the actions of previous employees. The response this week has ranged from we were just following what the previous administration did to not that it was an excuse, but we were very busy. None of this holds water. It looks bad. Even if the three previous points can be chalked up to good intent with sloppy results, the stink of the double-standard is going to linger a while.
Bringing people together at conferences and summits is an important part of education. There are times when we need a concerted effort at getting everybody onto the same page. Learning about new regulations and processes can’t happen in a vacuum. Teachers and administrators thrive on quality professional development. Hopefully, with this series of reports, planning will resume for future events with one intent only – helping people help kids. The grandstanding, palm-greasing, and self-congratulation wouldn’t be missed.