The state House of Representatives and Senate appropriations committees on Tuesday afternoon passed a common education budget bill that seeks to rein in the Oklahoma State Department of Education’s handling of competitive federal grants.
Lawmakers want the Education Department to seek “joint approval” from the Senate president pro tem and the House speaker before forgoing any federal education grants previously won by the state of Oklahoma.
“The State Department of Education shall not decline, refuse participation in, or choose not to apply for any federal grant funding that had been received by the Department prior to FY2023 without joint approval from the President Pro Tempore of the Oklahoma State Senate and the Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives,” states Senate Bill 36x, which was approved 20-0 on the Senate side and 34-0 in the House.
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The measure is one of a host of so-called “spending limits” bills moving through the Joint Committee on Appropriations and Budget. Such measures are intended to specify or limit how newly appropriated state dollars are to be spent.
The move comes in the wake of the Oklahoma State Department of Education’s former grant writer’s claims that State Superintendent Ryan Walters lied to lawmakers at a recent public hearing and concerns that current and future federal grant funding for Oklahoma public school students is in jeopardy.
Rep. Mark McBride, R-Moore, explained at Tuesday’s House committee meeting, “This was something I wanted inserted” in SB 36x.
Terri Grissom, a longtime grant writer, told McBride, as well as two other lawmakers and the Tulsa World earlier this month that Walters was lying when he said in a May 1 legislative committee meeting that the State Department of Education had applied for millions of competitive grants since he took office.
The only grant writer at the Education Department until her April 18 resignation, Grissom said not one grant application had been submitted since January. She also claimed that the behind-the-scenes reality at the Education Department under Walters’ leadership included a complete standstill on contract work for previously awarded competitive federal grants.
Grissom said that since being hired in 2017, she wrote grants that have guaranteed Oklahoma about $106 million, but only if all of the work is completed.
Without access to department documentation, she estimated that between $35 million and $40 million of that money is unspent, and she said that if those grant programs are not fully completed, some federal agencies likely will demand repayment of the grants in full.
On Tuesday, McBride told his fellow lawmakers that he has obtained proof that no new or grant renewal applications have been submitted in 2023.
“We’ve determined that they (grants) haven’t been applied for — not any of the competitive grants we had under (Walters’ predecessor) Joy Hofmeister.”
Asked about his concerns about the matter after Tuesday’s committee votes, McBride told the Tulsa World: “These are federal dollars that we paid in that we need to come back to Oklahoma to help our kids.”
Walters has vowed that the State Department of Education will not apply for federal grants that run counter to “Oklahoma values.”
In response to Grissom’s claims, a Walters spokesman said the state superintendent has “slowed things down” not from incompetence but in an effort to do his due diligence and to exercise prudence.
Randy Krehbiel contributed to this story.