|Stitt Cabinet official’s concerns over Oklahoma education agency finances prompted resignation |
Education secretary says she struggled to get information from Ryan Walters
By Nuria Martinez-Keel and Carmen Forman
OKLAHOMA CITY — The governor’s former education secretary said she resigned from her position after three months because the state superintendent’s administration limited her oversight of his agency.
Katherine Curry said she repeatedly asked for financial documents showing how the agency budgeted and spent money, but the Oklahoma State Department of Education never provided them.
As education secretary, Curry was responsible for approving all expenses over $25,000 from the Education Department. She said the agency provided records of only the high-dollar expenses that required her signature but didn’t cooperate when she asked for other documents, including a monthly fiscal report and the agency’s annual budget.
“When you’re responsible for something, you want to know details,” Curry said. “That’s all I can say. I just needed information. … I never received information.”
The agency appeared to lack internal financial oversight when Walters took office, spokesperson Dan Isett said. As a result, he said there was “simply no data available” at the time to answer many of Curry’s questions.
Isett said Walters hired outside experts to audit the agency, but he declined to name the firm. Curry said she had no recollection of this audit.
“Had Secretary Curry remained in office, she could have been part of the solution along with Superintendent Walters, but she wasn’t in place long enough to see the job through,” Isett said.
Curry said she felt compelled to learn more about the agency’s finances after the Oklahoma State Auditor and Inspector’s Office released a scathing report on another program Walters oversaw before he took office.
He preceded Curry as Gov. Kevin Stitt’s education secretary. Stitt replaced Walters as education secretary after Attorney General Gentner Drummond advised he could not serve in two state positions simultaneously.
The state audit shows more than $1 million was misspent from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund, which was separate from the Education Department. Walters and Stitt have blamed a third-party vendor for failing to prevent the misspending of federal funds that were meant to help students and schools cover educational costs during the pandemic.
Days after the state audit was released in late June, Curry began to request records that she said “would help me understand financials at the (state Education Department),”
according to emails Oklahoma Voice obtained from the Governor’s Office through a public records request.
She asked for the May monthly fiscal report, yearly revenue and expenses, and the annual budget for the 2023 and 2024 fiscal years, email records show.
Curry also asked for an overview of the department’s financial review process. Her emails state Walters’ assistant chief operating officer answered some of her questions on financial oversight, but she still hoped to learn more information.
The agency’s chief financial officer wrote in a July 11 email that she was compiling the requested documents and promised to provide them by the end of the day, records show.
But, three days later, Curry still had no records, she said in an email. Walters’ chief of staff responded to Curry, saying the state superintendent wanted to talk with her about the request.
Curry said she attempted numerous times to contact Walters on his cell phone, her emails show.
“I have tried to call repeatedly, and I have texted twice,” she wrote to Walters in a July 20 email. “Can you please tell me how to get ahold of you?”
She said Walters never responded.
Curry resigned as education secretary five days later and planned to return to her college faculty position. At the time, she cited the “complexity and political environment” as the factors that led her to step down.
But the lack of financial records provided by the Education Department was “100%” the reason for her resignation, she said.
In response to questions about financial oversight of the agency, Stitt spokesperson Abegail Cave said the governor is confident taxpayer funds are being spent properly.
“Gov. Stitt is committed to transparent operations within government and continues to seek ways to hold all agencies accountable to the Oklahoma taxpayers,” she said.
Stitt has not named Curry’s replacement.
Curry said she enjoyed working with educators and state employees as the education secretary. The position oversees 41 boards, agencies and commissions. She said the role was “absolutely a tremendous blessing.”
“We have wonderful educators in the state of Oklahoma who are working diligently every day,” Curry said. “It was an honor to work with them. I was really disappointed to have to step down.”
Walters has faced similar complaints about being inaccessible from within his own agency.
Despite her open enthusiasm for Walters’ conservative values, the Education Department’s program manager for grant development and compliance resigned last week after only a few months on the job, citing a lack of contact from the state superintendent.
Pamela Smith-Gordon said she struggled to get necessary approvals from Walters, an issue that impeded work in multiple departments within the agency, according to her resignation letter, which surfaced in media reports. Other former employees left the Education Department with similar complaints about the new administration.
Smith-Gordon said she asked several times to meet with Walters but he denied every request.
“While desperately wanting to support you, the lack of leadership and availability within our own (state Department of Education) is impossible to ignore,” Smith-Gordon wrote. “Superintendent Walters, your absence, and the refusal to meet with your staff sends a concerning message that we may not hold value in your eyes.”
Oklahoma Voice is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501(c) 3 public charity. Oklahoma Voice maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Janelle Stecklein for questions: email@example.com. Follow Oklahoma Voice on Facebook and Twitter.