Current Education Department officials hosted a conference in 2011 using private donations and payments held in the bank account of a nonprofit foundation. The foundation paid for expenses at Innovation 2011 under the leadership of current state schools Superintendent Janet Barresi.
A similar practice by previous Education Department officials under the leadership of former state schools Superintendent Sandy Garrett was criticized by the state auditor and inspector's office in an investigation released earlier this month.
Officials in Barresi's administration said there were critical differences in the structure and function of the foundation they used that made the way they hosted their conference proper.
The auditor's report on activities during Garrett's administration said that two bank accounts under the name of the nonprofit organization Oklahoma Curriculum Improvement Commission appeared to be slush funds.
The two bank accounts were undisclosed to members of the nonprofit board, the audit said, and were used by state employees to spend $2.3 million over the course of 10 years on education conferences, including an annual conference for education leadership and a second event for librarians across the state.
Garrett contends that the accounts were not a secret but were fully audited and saved taxpayers money by using private funds to help host education conferences.
Barresi's spokesman, Damon Gardenhire, said there are very important distinctions between what was found in the auditor's investigation and what the Foundation for Innovation in Education did in 2011 to help the state host the annual leadership conference.
“This was a really accountable and transparent way of handling the event,” Gardenhire said.
“The event itself was focused not on socializing or a social gathering. It was focused on instructional practices and professional development.”
The Oklahoman learned about the foundation from documents that showed the remaining balances in the two conference accounts held by the Oklahoma Curriculum Improvement Commission were transferred to the Foundation for Innovation in Education.
Barresi had the questionable accounts closed after learning that the state was paying $25,000 a year to have an outside agency manage them, Gardenhire said.
But the roughly $780 remaining in those accounts was not deposited into a revolving fund, as was initially stated by Gardenhire, but into the account of the Foundation for Innovation in Education.
Gardenhire said they had mistakenly believed the money was put into an education revolving fund but discovered upon further inspection that the money went to the foundation.
Gardenhire provided receipts and financial transactions from the foundation, which showed almost all of the expenses for the convention including the following bills: $33,560 from the Renaissance Hotel for vendor space, $49,306 at the Cox Convention Center for convention space, $12,612 for catering from Deep Fork and $4,113 for rooms at The Skirvin Hilton Hotel for vendors and special guests. Another $54,635 was spent on TES Productions for video, audio, lighting, staging, rigging, computer graphics and a teleprompter.
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