Five years after citizens collected signatures to trigger an investigative audit of Talihina Public Schools, State Auditor and Inspector Cindy Byrd released findings today that detail more than $11,000 in questionable purchases for which Superintendent Jason Lockhart could not provide receipts.
Documenting eight total findings from Jan. 1, 2016, through June 30, 2018, the audit report (embedded below) comes one year after concerns about a district teacher using a homophobic slur made national headlines. The audit, however, only examined financial questions about the school and its superintendent between 2016 and 2018.
“Per Lockhart’s contract, expenses that were not documented or itemized should not have been reimbursed by the district,” auditors wrote in their report.
According to Byrd’s press release announcing the audit report, Lockhart accrued more than $2,000 in personal expenses on a credit card designated to cover district-related expenses in both his and the district’s names. Lockhart repaid more than $500, yet $1,600 remained unpaid for unauthorized purchases, including $700 for alcoholic beverages.
Other purchases made by Lockhart with the card included personal expenses and at least one hotel stay that auditors called an “excessive” business transaction.
Auditors also said Lockhart received more than $1,500 for vehicle expenses which, per his contract with the district, were designated as his own responsibility. Lockhart had already been compensated with an $800 monthly automobile allowance.
“This is a textbook example of what can happen when trust is given to one person who controls a multi-million-dollar budget with a school board not paying attention,” Byrd said in a statement. “Oklahoma taxpayers appropriated this money for the purpose of providing an education for our children. Instead, an administrator abused that trust to make unauthorized purchases at taxpayer expense. Transparency, oversight, and accountability were disregarded. As a result, Oklahoma’s children have been cheated.”
Lockhart could not be reached for comment Thursday. A cell phone number Lockhart provided last year is no longer in service, and a woman in the district’s front office said by phone that he is in Tulsa for meetings this week and is off next week with the rest of the district for the Thanksgiving holiday.
In the report, auditors were particularly critical of the Talihina school board’s membership during the audit period.
“Although the superintendent is responsible for incurring the charges questioned in this report, the school board approved thousands of dollars in charges without proper supporting documentation,” auditors wrote in the report.
Additionally, auditors found two district employees who served in positions for which they did not have proper certification.
From the 2017 to 2018 school years, Kelly Gravitt served as a principal in the district despite not being certified as a principal.
From the 2016 to 2018 school years, Hailey Kirkes served as a pre-K to 12th grade health and physical education teacher despite only having certifications in biological sciences and agriculture. The report noted that Kirkes now holds the proper certifications.
Five-year audit delayed by ‘lack of proper resources’
NonDoc refereced some of the concerns reported in the investigative audit in a story published Nov. 15, 2022, after receiving hundreds of pages of documents and emails from the Oklahoma State Department of Education as the result of an open records request.
‘An audit, a slur and an investigation: Tense times at Talihina Public Schools by Bennett Brinkman
According to OSDE records, issues with Lockhart’s governance of the district came to light after a January 2018 board meeting when Lockhart accused a former board member, Brian Holland, of bank fraud because Holland had requested district financial documents from the bank after Lockhart refused to disclose the information. In a letter, school administrators threatened Holland with criminal and civil litigation to “protect the school” and “to protect our employees against harassment and bullying, whether it’s from a board member or a community member.”
Subsequent communications within OSDE show that officials with the state department told Lockhart he could not withhold financial information from board members and that school board members are entitled to review all financial information regarding the district. Despite this communication, Lockhart continued to provide board members bank statements with some items redacted.
In their initiative petition in 2018, Talihina citizens requested that the state invetigative audit cover six topics:
- Review use of district credit card for possible personal, unreimbursed expenses;
- Review all administrative and teacher certifications, salaries, and/or duties to determine compliance with state standards and district policies per position and possible nepotism in hiring/placement of personnel;
- Review extra duty contracts/compensation/certification/attendance including comparing annual Choctaw Nation grant funds to actual expenditures;
- Review receipting/expenditure of all district funds including general and activity funds;
- Review “weekend school” to determine if the district board authorized its implementation and its purported restricted use to reduce the number of recorded absences of certain students;
- Review District Impact Aid application to compare reported English Second Language students to actual district enrollment.
Auditors said they found no evidence of nepotism and had no findings associated with the “weekend school” program, which lasted only for the 2017 and 2018 school year. Additionally, the district was not required to report its number of English Second Language students to receive federal impact aid.
Byrd said last year that the reason the audit took so long to complete was “because of our staffing shortage and a lack of proper resources.”
Lockhart had a different assessment of the audit’s delay after a Talihina school board meeting Nov. 7, 2022.
“It’s lasted this long because they can’t find anything,” Lockhart said.
But auditors did find multiple issues with Lockhart’s management of school funds, including $1,400 in interest and fees on a credit card opened jointly in Lockhart and the school’s name in 2010.
“Between Jan. 1, 2016, and Jan. 31, 2018, Lockhart incurred, and the district paid, $58,387.12 in credit charges,” auditors wrote. “Of these charges, no receipts were provided for $11,686.33 of expenses and no itemized receipts were provided for $2,152.38 of expenses.”
Teacher who used slur still in classroom
Documents from the open records request show that OSDE officials tried to communicate with Lockhart about his unwillingness to show finances to board members and his use of the district credit card. Additionally, Gravitt’s lack of a principal certification caused the district to receive an accreditation deficiency in 2018, according to the audit report.
Records from OSDE and Thursday’s audit report show Lockhart described Gravitt’s predicament as a coding error, and Gravitt obtained an emergency principal certification the next year, which he still holds.
The then-four-year-old audit request received renewed interest last year after a Talihina mom posted complaints on Facebook about her son’s teacher, whom she said used homophobic slurs against the child.
After a protracted dispute with Lockhart over her son’s treatment in teacher Kevin McClain’s classroom, Amber Stepp began homeschooling him. One year later, Stepp said she is still homeschooling her son and has served a tort claim to the district, the first element of possible litigation.
A Talihina graduate herself, Stepp said she anticipates continuing to homeschool.
“I would absolutely never send any of my kids back to Talihina,” Stepp said.
Stepp said last year that OSDE was conducting an investigation into the district and McClain. NonDoc made a records request for documents relating to the investigation Sept. 27 but has yet to receive a response.