Newspaper, OSBI Investigating Possible Misconduct In McAlester School District
McALESTER, Oklahoma - The McAlester School Board met Monday night for the first time since the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation confirmed it is investigating misconduct by a school district employee.
One item on the agenda suggests the board could go into executive session “for the purpose of evaluating the employment of the superintendent.” The school board held a special meeting and went into executive session last week for the same reason.
It’s a discussion that may have spurred by an investigation by the McAlester News-Capital. For more than a month, the headline on almost every edition of the local paper has involved its special investigation into the McAlester Public School District.
“Everything we've done here is aimed at protecting the taxpayer,” Editor Glenn Puit said.
Puit said their investigation was prompted by the school board's unexplained decision to hire an outside firm to work as the district’s treasurer, which moved Brent Grilliot out of the position.
“They held a school board meeting at 4:00 on a Friday going into Labor Day weekend and he was reassigned. But it was done in a way, that it wasn't really clear what had happened,” Puit said. “He's a very respected member of this community.”
Puit said there’s still no explanation as to why Grilliot was reassigned but, as a result of the decision, he and reporters James Beaty and David Dishman have looked into the school's spending.
Their desks and a conference room table are stacked with documents they've received through open records requests.
“It's been a roller coaster ride of trying to get access to the records. They did, eventually, hand over many of them, and we're pursuing more,” the editor said. “You're talking about a school district that has tens of millions of dollars in public money, and so it's all public record, and how this taxpayer money is spent is important.”
Puit’s calculations show, in just the past few years, administrators have spent more than $300,000 in taxpayer money on travel, food, mileage and conference registrations.
“They have traveled all across the country. They've been to places like Portland, Atlanta, Nashville, Washington D.C....staying in some very nice hotels,” he said.
Money for those expenses came from a central office administrative account.
“That fund has blossomed almost tenfold in the last few years, as far as the money going into and what's been spent out of it,” Puit said.
The investigation also found Superintendent Dr. Marsha Gore, her husband, and former sister-in-law are three of the top four highest paid employees in the district.
Puit said records show Mr. Gore, the district’s director of plant operations, took 37 professional days in one calendar year.
“The school district has had an explanation for all of this. And they say this was appropriate, and that he was the most qualified and that he has additional duties, so they are defending it,” Puit said.
As the paper’s investigation continues, its relationship with the school board seems to unravel.
“We have gotten to a point where the school board won't interview with us. They only will email us statements, and that's concerning to us. We think that you should be able to pick up the phone or sit down and talk openly about this,” Puit said. “All our reporting has been beyond fair, and it's all been in the public's interest and we're very proud of it.”
It’s possible the McAlester News-Capital’s investigation is what led OSBI’s investigation of misconduct by a school district employee. According to the paper, OSBI characterized the investigation as a probe into alleged white-collar crime, but wouldn’t name the employee.
The state auditor’s office hasn't received a request to investigate but said the reports are troubling.
In order for the state auditor to investigate a formal request must be made by the governor, attorney general, district attorney or school board. The auditor can also launch an audit through a citizen petition.
“I think it's very unfortunate that we've come to a point where state investigators need to come into the school district to review records. We're optimistic they'll get to the bottom of what's going on here,” Puit said.
And Puit and his team will continue their fight to do the same.
“It's been overwhelming, the support from the public. Thanking us for what we have done, and asking us to keep pushing forward and get to the bottom off it, and that's exactly what we're gonna do,” Puit said. “The long-term interest needs to be the school district's citizens and its kids.”
We sent an email to every school board member, and we tried reaching out to the superintendent at her office, but we have not received a comment from any of them.