Legislators learned on Monday afternoon that state auditors have concluded that the West Virginia Department of Education can’t adequately monitor how local school systems use federal emergency relief dollars, resulting in greater risk of fraud, waste and abuse.
Members of the Joint Standing Committee on Government Organization received a report from the Legislature’s Performance Evaluation and Research Division (PERD) regarding the spending of federal dollars made available between 2020 and 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic for county schools.
Legislative auditors found numerous issues with how county public schools spent millions in available COVID-19 dollars, including alleged misuse, counties doing business with vendors not registered in West Virginia, and an inability by the state Department of Education to adequately monitor misuse of COVID dollars.
A federal investigation is actively underway over misspending of federal pandemic relief funds in Upshur County, which led to the state Board of Education taking control of that school system over the summer.
The state board also took control of Logan County due to issues of non-compliance, including lack of oversight with spending. The Logan malfeasance was referenced in the latest findings, with auditors noting that a single person had been assigned to monitor the full extent of the county’s pandemic relief spending.
The latest report shows that these issues go far beyond those two counties.
Beginning in March 2020, the state Department of Education received more than $1.2 billion in federal relief funds for elementary and secondary schools. Most of that was distributed to local school systems to support areas affected by the covid-19 pandemic.
According to a review by the Department of Education’s Office of Federal Programs (OPF), 37 counties out of 54 monitored were found to be non-compliant for not following proper purchasing procedures, spending money on unallowable expenses, or exceeding indirect cost rates. As a result, more than $457,000 has been recovered from counties from the Department of Education.
After that revelation, the state auditors reported, no risk assessment was performed by the state education department to determine if more staff should be hired to maintain adequate oversight.
PERD staff recommended that the Department of Education increase its monitoring and internal control capacity in OFP, including using available ARPA dollars to hire temporary staff to assist in monitoring.
Stunned lawmakers tried to get a sense of if the misspending was intentional or a case of staff simply not knowing what to do in the face of an unprecedented pandemic.
Melanie Purkey, executive director for federal programs at the West Virginia Department of Education, blamed the chaos in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic for driving bad spending decisions, coupled with county boards receiving more funds later on than the they were accustomed to.
“I think school systems were in a panic.” Purkey said. “If we found a vendor who could supply this, we’re going to buy it because people all over the country were having trouble buying masks, hand sanitizer, even computers.”