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Oklahoma Youth Expo needed $2M bailout from state of Oklahoma

The Oklahoma Youth Expo used a $2 million bailout from the Legislature to pay its employees, expenses from the previous year's event and to shore up its seven-digit scholarship program.
by Andrew Knittle Modified: May 10, 2013 at 10:11 pm •  Published: May 10, 2013

The private charity that hosts a prestigious livestock show for children each spring used a $2 million bailout from the state Legislature to pay its employees, clear its venue debts and shore up its struggling youth scholarship program.

Documents provided by Oklahoma Youth Expo last week are the first public glimpse at why the organization billed as the “world's largest junior livestock show” needed last-minute financial support from the state in 2012 — a decision that still has some lawmakers rankled.

More than 7,000 students from each of the state's 77 counties participate in the annual show.

The documents show half the taxpayer money is being spent to support the show held each year at State Fair Park in Oklahoma City. The remaining million dollars was intended to ensure graduating high school students are not left empty-handed when they try to cash in on scholarships awarded by the expo.

“During the economic downturn of the last few years, (expo) revenues and sponsorships did decline, and so additional funds from the state were required to meet scholarship and expense obligations,” the organization's executive director, Tyler Norvell, wrote in an email to The Oklahoman.

Norvell said the state Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry has given the expo about $4.4 million since its founding in 2002 as part of its contract to produce the livestock show.

Those funds have been used to leverage another $12 million in private donations for the show, Norvell said.

A judge ruled in April that the partnership between the expo and Agriculture Department was legitimate and the appropriations legal, but two items of litigation are pending.

Expo directors also have refused to turn over in full an audit performed on the private charity, which was the first time an outside entity had examined the expo's finances.

Norvell said the audit will be released when the lawsuits are resolved.

Where money went

Records show the Oklahoma State Fair, which hosts the expo's annual youth livestock show, received more than half a million dollars of the special appropriation.

Expo leadership directed payments of $192,325 to the state fair to settle debts from the 2012 junior livestock show and to make a deposit for the 2013 show, held in March.

More than $350,000 was paid to the fair for expenses related to the 2013 livestock show and to secure the annual shows through 2016, according to the documents.

Nearly $182,000 was used to pay the charity's employees.

Other show-related expenses included tens of thousands of dollars on things like hotel rooms for volunteers, judges' fees and expenses and contract labor for the latest livestock show.

The remaining million dollars was slotted to help stabilize the expo's scholarship program — a feature selling point for the organization's contract with the state, but one which now has seven-digit obligations.

In 2004, the group awarded 97 scholarships to kids as young as the third grade, totaling $162,500, or an average of almost $1,675 per scholarship.

In 2008, just before the nationwide economic turndown, scholarship awards had been boosted to $350,000 for 134 students, an average of $2,600 each.

Norvell said the expo got into trouble under previous directors for its scholarship commitments because many of the scholarships awarded won't be collected by college-bound students for several years.

Typically, the expo holds on to scholarship funds until a student submits an invoice for tuition at an Oklahoma college, he said.

“As such, we carry some scholarships for quite some time,” he said. “During the economic downturn of the last few years, (expo) revenues and sponsorships did decline, so funding levels did not keep pace with scholarship demands.”

Scholarship awards sank considerably starting in 2009. After the show ended in March, only $173,500 had been awarded to 123 students, an average of $1,410 each.

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by Andrew Knittle
Investigative Reporter
Andrew Knittle has covered state water issues, tribal concerns and major criminal proceedings during his career as an Oklahoma journalist. He has won reporting awards from the state's Associated Press bureau and prides himself on finding a real...
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