In February of 2008, about a year and a half after I moved to Oklahoma with my family, I learned about the infamous “birthday fund” of our state superintendent. Sandy Garrett held the elected position of Oklahoma state superintendent of schools for twenty years, from 1991 to 2011. Doug Taylor, the late superintendent of Gage Public Schools, told me how school superintendents in Oklahoma were sent an annual letter each year from the state superintendent’s office asking for contributions to her “birthday fund.” According to Doug, each letter provided a specific amount of money the superintendent asked and expected the recipient to contribute from his/her personal bank account to this “birthday fund.” It was Doug’s impression these funds were used primarily for re-election expenses of the state superintendent. Keep in mind we’re not talking ancient history, here. This was 2008, just four years ago.
Coming as I do from the U.S. Air Force Academy, where our honor code is extremely important, and from the U.S. Air Force were integrity is vital, I immediately thought, “Where is the whistle blower who will take this story to the mainstream media?” How has a situation like this been allowed to continue in “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” when public officials are supposedly subjected to thorough scrutiny by the media? Surely someone would step forward and speak out? Corrupt behavior which was well known by all 500+ school superintendents in Oklahoma couldn’t continue to be “overlooked” by so many well intentioned, honest public servants, could it?
As I visited with other Oklahoma school superintendents in later months and years, however, the answer I heard from all of them was the same: No sane Oklahoma superintendent would “go public” with this story. Each one was scared of Sandy Garrett and what she would do to their school district and to them personally if they dared report on “her birthday fund.” Doug Taylor told me school superintendents in Oklahoma widely believed if they did NOT contribute “the specified amount” to the state superintendent’s birthday fund each year, their district would be “blacklisted” by the Oklahoma State Department of Education. Former employees of the Oklahoma SDE have confirmed to me this was indeed accurate: School districts were put on a “black list” which (for different reasons) did not meet with the former state superintendent’s approval. Once a district was placed on this list, they were not considered for different grant opportunities which the department had authority to administer.
In 2010, Janet Barresi was elected Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction. She took office in January of 2011. I wondered if this “changing of the guard” in the Oklahoma State Department of Education would result in an inquiry about Sandy Garrett’s “birthday fund,” and today’s headline by Megan Rolland in “The Daily Oklahoman” reveals that inquiries into financial corruption by Oklahoma State Department of Education officials have finally been promulgated.
According to the article, “Oklahoma Education Department spent $2.3 million through slush fund, audit claims:”
The [Oklahoma] state Education Department used at least two undisclosed bank accounts as a slush fund for drinks, entertainment, travel and more at state education conferences, spending $2.3 million over the past 10 years, according to an investigative state audit released Wednesday. “These off-book and unauthorized accounts allowed (Education Department) officials to pay, at a single event, $2,600 for 85 bottles of wine and 3 kegs of beer and $5,700 for food items including a ‘chocolate fountain,’ ‘Maryland crab cakes,’ ‘mini beef wellingtons,’ and ‘smoked salmon mousse in a puff pastry,’ without following any of the requirements normally associated with government expenditures,” the report from the state Auditor and Inspector’s Office shows.
The accounts were set up in the name of the nonprofit Oklahoma Curriculum Improvement Commission, which was established in 1957. According to the audit, Education Department officials acted on behalf of the Oklahoma Curriculum Improvement Commission when they solicited payments from vendors or companies attending education conferences hosted by the department.
Those payments were then used to pay for the annual conference hosted by then-State Superintendent Sandy Garrett, the audit states.
The funds were hidden not only from the state Auditor’s Office, but also from members of the nonprofit, according to the audit.
This article barely reveals the tip of the iceberg, however. The full, 46 page “Oklahoma State Department of Education Supplemental Investigative Report from March 7, 2012” is available as a PDF file, linked from the NewsOK article. I read most of the report tonight. Unfortunately it was scanned as an image, so it’s not text searchable, and text cannot be readily copied and pasted. Here are a few items which stood out for me personally in the report which weren’t mentioned in Megan Rolland’s article today.
1. One of the bank accounts utilized by Oklahoma SDE officials through OCIC as a passthrough organization supported the state superintendent’s annual “Leadership Conference.” The second account supported the annual “Encyclo-Media Conference,” which (until this year) was traditionally held in the fall in September. I had been confused as to why the Encyclo-Media Conference wasn’t held in 2011 and was officially combined this year with the February Oklahoma Technology Administrator’s (OTA) conference. This report provides an explanation for this change: Funds for the conference were likely in limbo since auditors started this investigation in the summer of 2011 and it was ongoing throughout the fall.
2. I actually attended at least one of the events for which receipts are included in the full report. This receipt from July of 2007 is on page 13 of the report, and I was there. It’s a little weird to have a personal connection like this to the report and this entire situation. I know there are hundreds of other folks in Oklahoma like me. These were big events.
This situation involves LARGE amounts of money. Consider this graph from page 27 of the full report. It shows in green the funds reported to the board of OCIC, and in red the actual funds received by the OKSDE employees operating bank accounts for the State Department of Education in the name of OCIC.
Another weird personal connection is I just attended a workshop offered by OCIC at the end of January this year, a few weeks ago. (See part 1 and part 2 of my notes for details.) I hadn’t heard of this organization before that conference, which featured a speaker from the Marzano Research Lab discussing the transition to Common Core State Standards.
3. I know several of the people mentioned by name in this report, and I’m wondering where this investigation will go and who will be charged with what. Again I come back to the idea and image of whistleblowing. According to the English WikiPedia, a “whistleblower” is:
…a person who tells the public or someone in authority about alleged dishonest or illegal activities (misconduct) occurring in a government department, a public or private organization, or a company. The alleged misconduct may be classified in many ways; for example, a violation of a law, rule, regulation and/or a direct threat to public interest, such as fraud, health/safety violations, and corruption. Whistleblowers may make their allegations internally (for example, to other people within the accused organization) or externally (to regulators, law enforcement agencies, to the media or to groups concerned with the issues).
I’ll be curious to learn if there was a “whistleblower” in this case (or series of cases) and where the buck will stop. The financial audit report of OCIC (see pages 27-28 for details) suggests Oklahoma SDE officials were intentionally underreporting the actual bank account balances of the organization to the board.
The Oklahoma State School Boards Association (OSSBA) is also implicated in this report, because in July 2009 (see pages 30-31 of the report under Finding #7) it become the new “partner” organization for the Oklahoma SDE instead of OCIC. The connections and implications here are far and wide in Oklahoma. I know several of the people interviewed for this investigative report personally. This entire situation is a big mess. But it’s a big mess that needed to be exposed to the light of public scrutiny FOR YEARS, and as a citizen I’m glad it finally has. We don’t know where the investigation and, I would guess, criminal charges related to these sustained activities over a large number of years will go, but hopefully those ultimately responsible will be brought to justice and face legal consequences. I have a strong sense of justice, and I hope justice is upheld in this situation.
There are many lessons to learn from this situation and it’s too early to identify all of them now. One of the big ones has to be, “What should individuals do when they find themselves inside an organization where dishonest and illegal activities are being conducted on a sustained basis with the blessing of top officials?” Put another way, “When should someone decide to speak out as a whistleblower, or resign as a conscientious objector to immoral acts?” Those are very important ethical questions, and ones which I’ve privately considered for years since I first heard about “the birthday fund.”
These are the final five bullet points included on page 34 of the report, under the title “Conclusions.”
Information developed during our interviews with SDE officials, as well as records we reviewed indicated OSDE officials were:
- Soliciting funds for conferences as part of their OSDE duties.
- Recording, accounting for and depositing those funds into various unofficial “private” accounts
- Two of the “private” accounts held under the name of OCIC had not been disclosed to the OCIC board of directors.
- The OCIC operating account appeared to have also been used for purposes more aligned with OSDE than OCIC.
- The use of the unofficial “private” accounts allowed OSDE officials to spend money with no governmental oversight.
In addition to being able to issue payments with no governmental oversight, the accounts may have also been used to avoid public scrutiny.
The issues of “who is responsible” and “where the buck stops” are not new. The issue of personal responsibility for immoral actions was central to the cases heard during the Nuremberg Trials following World War II. More recently, the Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse cases brought up the same issue. Did you notice Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and George W. Bush weren’t found responsible? I wonder who will remain “insulated” from blame in this situation with our Oklahoma State Department of Education? How “high” and how “low” will the inquiry go in finding individuals culpable? Who will be able to plead, “I was just following orders?” It’s a familiar refrain in a culture where immoral behavior has been normalized.
You may think a comparison to Nuremberg or Abu Ghraib is inappropriate in this case, but I think the issues of “compliant behavior within a culture where immortality became defined as normal” are absolutely congruent. It is vital we discuss and study ethics so we can prepare ourselves as well as others to make moral decisions when faced with circumstances which challenge our integrity. On page 12 of this report we read:
One official told us she did not feel like soliciting donations and coordinating the Leadership conference was optional, but that it was a part of her “other duties as assigned” as an OSDE employee.
You can bet this situation with the Oklahoma State Department of Education is going to become a “case study” in more than one ethics textbook in the years to come.
Kudos to Janet Barresi, former and current employees of the Oklahoma SDE who have spoken out on these chapters of our state history, and others involved in these ongoing investigations. You can bet we haven’t read the last headline on these subjects.
Other related articles:
- Former state Superintendent Sandy Garrett’s e-mails missing (NewsOK, 4 Feb 2011)
- Education Department Audit Reveals Disturbing Use Of Funds (News9, 7 Mar 2012)
NOTE: The text of the original article by Megan Rolland, quoted and linked in this post, has already been updated and revised as of 12:25 CST 3/8/2011 to include a quotation from Sandy Garrett and other additional information.
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