A longtime grant writer has shared with legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle claims that State Superintendent Ryan Walters lied to them at a recent public hearing and concerns that current and future federal grant funding for Oklahoma public school students is in jeopardy.
Terri Grissom, who was director of grant development at the Oklahoma State Department of Education since 2017, said she had planned to work three more years there before retiring and had no intention of being a whistleblower before she resigned on April 18 to take a job elsewhere.
She changed her mind about speaking out on May 1, when she tuned in to watch Walters engage in a Q-and-A with the House Appropriations and Budget Subcommittee on Education.
“I watched the hearing last week. He lied,” said Grissom, who has worked as a grant writer for 36 years and as a teacher for 11 years before that. “I’m not going to speak about something I don’t know about. I’m only going to speak about statements that I know are 100% untrue. And he spoke many untruths about the status of grants in the agency.”
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Walters has vowed that the State Department of Education will not apply for federal grants that run counter to “Oklahoma values.”
But Grissom said the behind-the-scenes reality is far different from the claims and reassurances Walters made to lawmakers.
“He said, ‘We have applied for millions and millions of grants since I took office.’ We have not applied for one single grant. That was a blatant lie,” she said. “When legislators said, ‘We want a list of those,’ he gave them a list of everything I did under (former Superintendent Joy Hofmeister’s) leadership. Nothing was new.
“The new leadership team is not moving on anything. They won’t approve anything. They won’t sign contracts. No work is actually happening. When work shuts down, everything is in jeopardy.”
Secondly, Grissom said she was incredulous when she heard Walters claim in the May 1 hearing that the State Department of Education had already applied for a multimillion-dollar grant long held by the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education. She said that was an idea she had pitched to him during a brief, chance encounter in the hall at work, and she said the grant application window doesn’t open until 2024.
“I could see him taking bits and pieces of that quick-snippet conversation he and I had and then making up a lie during the hearing. That was fascinating to me,” Grissom said. “I was flabbergasted that an elected official could just stand up in public and tell absolute, blatant lies. That’s when I decided to say something.
“The public has a right to know about his lies. If he’s going to lie about federal grants, he’s going to lie about anything.”
Grissom posted her quick reaction on Facebook, and word about her post quickly drew the attention of three lawmakers — Rep. Rhonda Baker, R-Yukon, chair of the House Common Education Committee; Assistant Floor Leader Rep. Mark McBride, R-Moore; and House Minority Leader Cyndi Munson, D-Oklahoma City.
So Grissom followed up with detailed emails to all three.
“Not following the guidelines of federal grants and moving staff people around, those were things that I didn’t really know, but I trust this person’s opinion because they had been there (at OSDE) for several years,” McBride told the Tulsa World on Thursday, adding that he is most concerned by the possibility that Oklahoma may have to return federal grant funds.
Asked if he feels misled by what Walters said about federal grants in the legislative hearing, McBride said: “I don’t feel misled. I just have a lot of questions, and I need answers.”
Walters’ spokesman Justin Holcomb said the state superintendent has “slowed things down” not from incompetence but in an effort to do his due diligence and to exercise prudence.
“Regarding the accusation that Superintendent Walters is not moving quickly enough — as he has stated, transparency and oversight are not something that should be rushed. This administration will continue to exercise extensive oversight when it comes to federal grants.”
Munson said she knows Grissom well because they previously served together on the board of a small nonprofit organization.
“He (Walters) may be elevating in the Republican Party and getting national attention and whatever else that he is seeking, but at the cost of thousands of children who are leaning on him to provide leadership and a vision so that they can be educated,” Munson said. “If we don’t have federal dollars available or granted to us in order to execute the things we need to in our public schools, do those programs and services all end, or is the state then obligated to take care of those needs?
“I would assume we would have to figure out a way to provide services, because many of those grants are for students with disabilities and lunch programs. These are things so every child has an opportunity to learn. These are vital programs and services.”
When Grissom was hired in 2017, she was assigned to seek competitive grants of federal tax dollars to support Oklahoma public schools’ needs with top priorities being students’ needs in reading instruction, mental health supports in schools, and curriculum.
After Walters took office, she said she tried for months to find out what his priorities for her would be.
Eventually, she said Walters’ chief of staff, Matt Langston, volunteered this guidance to her: “‘No trauma-informed training, no social-emotional learning, no DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) programming, and no LGBTQ+.’ He asked if I had any problem with those. I told him my personal beliefs didn’t matter because I would do the job I was assigned, and he said, ‘Great!’”
Grissom told lawmakers in private communications that the new administrators Walters has installed at the State Education Department appeared to lack even basic understanding of how to stay in legal compliance with the use of federal grant funding.
For example, in one instance, Grissom said Walters’ top brass found out they couldn’t just reassign grant-funded employees away from their grant project work to be their personal administrative assistants.
Grissom said she was told Walters didn’t have much use for maintaining or seeking out competitive federal grants as a source of funding at all.
“All grants at the federal level, the funding comes from taxes that we pay. Competing for those grants is a way of bringing money that Oklahomans pay in back to the state to provide services and supports to Oklahoma kids,” she said.
Grissom said that since being hired in 2017, she wrote grants that have guaranteed Oklahoma about $106 million, but only if all of the work is completed.
Without access to department documentation, she estimated that between $35 million and $40 million of that money is unspent, and she said that if those grant programs are not fully completed, some federal agencies likely will demand repayment of the grants in full.
Asked for an example of a project in jeopardy, Grissom said a grant-funded, three-year project by a vendor called Child Trend to create a searchable map to help local schools easily find mental health providers for student referrals has gone unfinished.
The reason? A contract for the third year of work has been awaiting Walters’ approval since August, when as the governor’s then-secretary of education his approval was already required.
“By law, contract renewals are required every year. The work on the third year of the grant was supposed to start Oct. 1, 2022, and he still hasn’t signed the contract,” Grissom said of Walters.
“Someone in leadership emailed me about a month ago and said, ‘I think we’re just at the point where we’re just not going to finish this work. Is there any consequence?’
“I said, ‘Yes. We said we were going to build an asset map. We’ve already paid this company $146,000. If we don’t complete the work, we have to pay back the $146,000.’ He said, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that!’
“The problem is that grant ends in September — and that’s just one example.”