, Muskogee, OK

December 26, 2012

Education Department changes donation rules

Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The Oklahoma State Department of Education is working to change the way it accepts donations after a state audit revealed the agency was slipping funds through a nebulous nonprofit.

The times of sole-source contracts and questionable fundraising practices are over, said Joel Robison, chief of staff for the department. The image of a quid pro quo hopefully will die off with those old ways, he said.

"That's part of what we're trying to do — stop that perception," Robison said. "We understand that. What we're trying to accomplish with the new process is that there is that transparency out there so people will know who's sponsoring what."

Both state schools Superintendent Janet Barresi and her predecessor Sandy Garrett have been criticized this year by the state auditor for funneling donations through nonprofits the auditor described as front organizations. The money was used to fund education conferences.

Barresi requested the audit and changed donation practices.

"When the superintendent first came into office we just kind of assumed the practices used prior were the right ones," Robison said. "We continued those practices the first year. Once we became aware that wasn't correct, we wanted to make sure that wasn't the way we were doing things."

This spring, the department created a rule that requires the state Board of Education to review all donations to the Education Department and vote whether to approve those donations.

"There's a lot of transparency there," Robison said. "When these gifts or donations or sponsorships are given, it's on the board agenda so everybody's aware of it."

For example, the board voted last week to accept a donation of about $5,000 from Magnuson Hotel and Meridian Convention Center for an education conference.

The donation process has been completely overhauled, Robison said. When donations are needed, the requests are posted on the agency website. People who want to help respond to the website, Robison said.

Under Garrett's administration, auditors found that donations often came from companies that received millions of dollars worth of no-bid state contracts. Some of the executives donated to Garrett's re-election campaigns, too. That's come to a stop under Barresi, Robison said.

"We no longer do sole-source contracts," he said. "We put everything out to bid. We think that's a good safeguard against what might have been going on in the past. That sort of activity is not going on with the state Department of Education."