Audit hits OPI on spending and staffing | State and Region

SKYLAR RISPENS

A state audit report found that the Montana Office of Public Instruction was at risk of mismanaging federal money in four different programs due to a lack of internal controls and oversight within the agency.

Much of the issues raised in the report related to federal COVID relief funds for schools (ESSER), but there were also issues with child nutrition programs, support for low-income students (Title I) and Persons with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Another internal issue identified in the report was the high turnover rate among OPI staff, as approximately half of the agency’s positions were vacant or transferred during the audit period. The Legislative Audit Division said in its report that staff often did not understand what they were being asked to do and did not respond to requests for information.

“The volume of recommendations combined with the difficulties we encountered obtaining timely information during the audit led us to consider OPI’s overall internal control structure,” the report states.

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“A lot of different directives have come from the federal government regarding anything ESSER I, ESSER II, ESSER III, so it’s been difficult trying to navigate that understanding of permitted uses,” the superintendent of instruction said. public Elsie Arntzen at a meeting on Wednesday. “But in everything we do, we communicate quite frequently with all of our (schools) and after-school programs.”

The Legislative Audit Division has acknowledged that the COVID pandemic poses challenges for OPI as it adjusts to working from home and new federal government responsibilities to distribute COVID relief funds.

In total, the report made 13 recommendations for the OPI based on the review of the two fiscal years that ended June 30, 2021. The OPI agreed with all but one of the recommendations and has already made progress in implementing at least nine recommendations related to federal compliance. .

Some of the recommendations highlighted in the most recent report with OPI were similar issues identified in the previous audit, according to Jessica Curtis, financial compliance audit supervisor for the Legislative Audit Division.

Senator Mary McNally considered the OPI’s initial written response to the report to be “inadequate, quite general, vague”. The OPI provided an updated response to committee members ahead of Wednesday’s meeting with more details on the progress it has made towards compliance.

“I was very concerned about some of the internal control issues and they appear to be chronic,” McNally said. “I mean, I know it’s exacerbated by everything that’s happened during COVID, but they were there pre-COVID as well.”

She also requested an update on vacancies within the OPI.

Jay Phillips, OPI’s chief financial officer, said some progress had been made in filling vacancies, but they still had challenges. He cited issues such as record unemployment rates in Montana and the competitive labor market as some fast food restaurants offer wages well above their usual rates.

“I mean, trying to be competitive at the state level at summer job time is a challenge, but absolutely, we’ve been doing great recruiting efforts,” Phillips said.

The most recent audit period has proven challenging for the majority of state agencies, and OPI was no exception. In fiscal years 2020 and 2021, OPI received a total of $184.2 million and $239.3 million respectively in federal resources.

During their review, auditors found that 16 of the 60 claims they made were unsubstantiated because they did not contain enough detail to know whether schools were spending COVID relief funds on authorized items. The audit identified $460,154 in disputed costs related to federal COVID relief funds, but auditors believe that amount could be higher.

“We encourage OPI to strengthen internal controls, especially to document all internal controls, because we can’t give the office credit for something we can’t see,” Curtis said.

Representative Denise Hayman, chair of the Legislative Audit Committee, asked Curtis if the auditors had been contacted by schools that might not have received funding. She replied that she was not aware of any situation through the Fraud Hotline and that the Legislative Audit Division does not investigate schools during the audit process. .

Phillips assured the committee that federal funds had not been withheld from the schools.