Janet Barresi's sometimes-bumpy ride as Oklahoma's superintendent of public instruction hit another pothole Monday with the release of an investigative report by Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones.
The report found that employees in Barresi's office did what workers in her predecessor's office had done, and been criticized for by the state auditor — solicited private donations, then created dubious nonprofit accounts that were used to fund a Department of Education conference.
Jones found that in April 2011, employee Ashley Hahn was given the job of finding a different way to house funds for the department's innovation conference. After running ideas past two former top Barresi aides, Hahn established a foundation made up of three members — her, her uncle and a friend. The board had no bylaws and never met, yet secured about $200,000 in donations for the conference. The attorney general's office has been asked to look into that arrangement. “We have real concerns about that,” Jones said.
Saying it's no excuse, Barresi noted that her department had many things going on at the Legislature and within the agency in early 2011, her first months on the job, and that she assumed the worker had experience with the nonprofit process. A new policy regarding donations and solicitations is now in place. “We're not doing that anymore,” she said. Great.
But it's troubling that the foundation apparently didn't make all its records regarding the conference available for Jones' investigators, saying they weren't public. That may not have been Barresi's call, but like the audit, the stiff-arming reflects poorly on her nonetheless. After all, she sought the audit in order to clear the air. And from day one she has preached accountability from schools and transparency from others, particularly superintendents.
Lingering questions will do nothing to enhance the department's ability to accomplish its most important work, which is improving education for Oklahoma children.