State Representative Kim Thatcher,
(Salem) Today four state legislators called for “a comprehensive investigation or audit into the alleged financial and management improprieties at the Willamette Education Service District (WESD)” in a letter sent to State School Superintendent Susan Castillo, Attorney General John Kroger and State Auditor Gary Blackmer.
The letter was signed by State Representative Kim Thatcher (R-Keizer, Newberg, St. Paul), State Senator Jackie Winters (R-Salem), State Representative John Huffman (R-The Dalles), and State Representative Ron Maurer (R-Grants Pass). All the legislators inside the WESD boundaries and members of the House and Senate Education Committees were invited to sign onto the letter. Thatcher noted, “even in today’s Statesman Journal newspaper we’re seeing school districts dropping services once provided by the WESD because of the ongoing controversy at the agency. It’s just not a good situation for anyone, especially the students who are supposed to be served by the WESD.”
An outside audit was requested by 20 of the 21 school districts served by the WESD into the alleged financial improprieties and two formal complaints from WESD managers are pending further review. The letter by lawmakers points out the WESD board has started an internal probe but adds “that is like the hen watching the hen house.”
The problems at the Willamette Education Service District date back five years. At one point the Oregon Department of Education (ODE), the Department of Justice, and Secretary of State Audits Division said they would investigate the WESD but not much action was reported back to the House Education Committee. The new request by the five legislators states, “in order to get an outside assessment of the ongoing problems we need the expertise your agencies provide.”
In the past few legislative sessions, several legislators pushed for a bill that would have allowed ODE to assess financial management practices at education service districts and school districts. There has also been a movement to allow the Audits Division at the Secretary of State’s Office to conduct performance audits in schools. This year funding for the District Best Business Practices Advisory Committee at ODE was cut by the legislature.
Today’s letter asks the three agencies to investigate whether there has been “a pattern of mismanagement at the WESD,” whether the board is “being properly informed of contracts and other major expenditures by management,” and whether “school districts are being overcharged for technology or other services provided by the WESD.” In conclusion the letter reads, “the state must step in to resolve the outstanding questions about WESD’s financial irregularities and hold this agency accountable once and for all.”