Oklahoma School Districts Report Unusual Delay in Receiving Federal Money

State Department of Education said complaints are politically motivated.

This is a photo of the Oklahoma State Department of Education building.
Several school districts complained of extended delays in the Oklahoma State Department of Education processing their applications for federal funds. (Kyle Phillips/For Oklahoma Voice)

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OKLAHOMA CITY — Millions in federal funds are yet to be paid to Oklahoma school districts, who complained the state Department of Education has had significant delays in processing their claims.

Midwest City-Del City Public Schools typically has its federal spending plans approved by the state by the end of September, Superintendent Rick Cobb said.

It’s usually a quick process after that to receive federal reimbursements, which support employee salaries, teacher training and extra resources for students.

“We typically have a plan in place and have a plan approved, and we are ready to spend that money,” Cobb said. “… And now here we are in December, and we haven’t received any of those reimbursements. For a district like Mid-Del, that means that we are waiting on millions and millions of dollars.”

The state didn’t approve the district’s federal application until Dec. 12, Cobb said. He, along with several other school leaders, reported the state Department of Education has had an usually delayed review process this year and “pretty poor” communication.

A survey of 184 Oklahoma districts found 72% had not received any of their claims for federal funds by mid-November. That means districts had either spent money and not been reimbursed or their plans to use federal funds were on hold.

A Dec. 8 memo to districts from the state Department of Education’s federal programs office acknowledged it had approved a little over half of all applications.

The agency’s approval process changed this school year, according to the memo, which Oklahoma Voice obtained.

“For the sake of greater accuracy in the review of applications, OSDE adopted a multi-tiered system of application review for the 2023-2024 school year,” it reads. “This is to ensure that taxpayer funds are used appropriately, and to shield school districts from inadvertently breaking the law.”

Approving an application, which outlines how a district plans to spend its federal funds, is a crucial step before schools can submit and collect claims for the money the federal government set aside for them.

Districts said the application process was “particularly frustrating and slow this year,” according to the survey, which was administered by the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration (CCOSA).

State Superintendent Ryan Walters speaks during an Oklahoma State Board of Education meeting Aug. 24 in Oklahoma City. (Brent Fuchs/For Oklahoma Voice)

The state Department of Education dismissed the survey as criticism from opponents of state Superintendent Ryan Walters.

“It is not surprising that the most liberal education group only polled a third of (Oklahoma school districts), presumably the most left-leaning, in a pathetic attempt to shame OSDE and Supt. Walters,” spokesperson Dan Isett said in a statement.

CCOSA Executive Director Pam Deering said the survey wasn’t meant to be political. Rather, the organization, at the request of lawmakers, wanted to gather empirical evidence of issues it had heard about anecdotally.

All of CCOSA’s member school districts from across the state were able to take the survey voluntarily, Deering said.

The responding districts reported receiving conflicting information from state officials. Some said they had their applications returned five to seven times for revisions while others waited as many as six weeks with no response from the state, according to the survey.

Deering said this resulted in extended delays to the approval process.

“Not everything is a political issue,” she said. “And this in this case, this is truly just a business issue and the need for schools to be better served.”

These aren’t the first complaints about inefficiency in the agency’s federal programs office. The former program manager of grant development and compliance, Pamela Smith-Gordon, resigned in October, citing “significant obstacles” that hindered the agency.

“There have been ongoing delays in obtaining the necessary approvals and signatures from you,” Smith-Gordon told Walters in her resignation letter. “These delays not only affect my department but also impede the progress of other departments within the OSDE and, ultimately, have an adverse impact on the districts and students we are here to support.”

Rep. Mark McBride, R-Moore, speaks at an event at the Jim Thorpe Office Building. McBride said state Superintendent Ryan Walters hasn’t been transparent about operations at the Oklahoma State Department of Education. (Mindy Ragan Wood/Oklahoma Voice)

Smith-Gordon’s resignation and the CCOSA survey are “very, very, very concerning,” said Rep. Mark McBride, the chairperson of the House budget committee on education.

McBride, R-Moore, said he’s had his own difficulties getting answers from the agency. He said he made numerous requests for information on the department’s handling of finances and other issues but was ignored.

McBride accused Walters and his senior advisor, Matt Langston, of refusing to cooperate.

“I don’t think anybody has ever experienced this lack of transparency,” McBride said.

The Republican lawmaker, who has been a vocal critic of Walters’ administration, said Langston answered his requests for information with the message, “Fool me once shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

Langston responded to McBride’s complaints last week, saying “I’ve never seen a more whiney Democrat in my life.”

Oklahoma Voice is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oklahoma Voice maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Janelle Stecklein for questions: info@oklahomavoice.com. Follow Oklahoma Voice on Facebook and Twitter.

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