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Oklahoma Watch

Paul Monies / Oklahoma Watch

A reported cash crisis at the Oklahoma State Department of Health that led to job cuts and an emergency injection of $30 million was more of a mirage than the real thing, a months-long grand jury investigation and audit found in separate reports released Thursday.

The state’s multicounty grand jury didn’t hand up any criminal indictments, but it did fault former top officials at the health department for creating a “slush fund” to pay for pet projects and years of financial mismanagement.

With Health Department News, Waves Of Disbelief Roll Across State

23 hours ago
Oklahoma Watch

Justin Forney worked for the state Department of Health for 12 years as a public information officer, stationed in several county health departments, including Logan County.

Then, in the wake of a financial crisis that shook the department, Forney lost his job in March – the result of cuts of nearly 200 health department positions.

Forney is still unemployed. And on Thursday, as the news rolled out statewide that a grand jury had found the agency’s reported cash shortfall never happened, he felt a sense of shock.

Oklahoma State Senate

As a convicted felon on a suspended sentence, former state Rep. Gus Blackwell can’t vote. But he can still lobby his former colleagues in the Legislature.

Blackwell, who left office in 2014 and became a registered lobbyist, was convicted in 2017 of “double-dipping” on his per diem and travel claims when he was a legislator. He remained a lobbyist and still can be seen in the Capitol corridors pressing the interests of his client.

Whitney Bryen / Oklahoma Watch

For the first time ever, students can attend an Oklahoma private school part-time yet have most or all of the tuition paid by scholarships funded through a state tax-credit program.

The scholarship program, promoted by school-choice advocates, is typically used to subsidize tuition costs for full-time students at private schools.

Oklahoma House of Representatives

The daughter of a state House leader who pushed a bill to protect the right to sentence juveniles to life without parole is a district attorney who seeks such a sentence in a Custer County case.

But District Attorney Angela Marsee, daughter of House Speaker Pro Tempore Harold Wright, R-Weatherford, said she sees no conflict of interest in her working with her father to help draft the amended bill, which passed the Legislature but was vetoed by Gov. Mary Fallin Friday.

Oklahoma State Capitol Building
Claire Donnelly / KGOU

A small group of unelected citizens, all appointed by Republican state leaders, will soon be exercising significant powers to decide how the state’s top agencies spend their funding and which services they should provide.

Legislators and Gov. Mary Fallin added $2 million to the state budget this year to pay for state agency audits to be conducted by a private firm and overseen by a commission of Oklahoma business leaders.

Teacher Shortage Forces Schools To Rely On Aides, Assistants

May 8, 2018
Whitney Bryen / Oklahoma Watch

Nancy Novosad has spent the last 27 years surrounded by students in Yukon classrooms, but she’s not a teacher.

She alternates between helping the teacher and helping the students. Novosad wipes noses, applies bandages, plans arts and crafts activities, opens milk cartons, leads story time, and packs and unpacks backpacks. She also passes out papers, explains assignments, takes students to the restroom and reinforces lessons taught by Elizabeth Wilson, a pre-K teacher at Ranchwood Elementary School.

Breaking Down The Impact Of The 2018 Legislative Session

May 8, 2018
Whitney Bryen / Oklahoma Watch

The curtain fell Thursday night on the 2018 session of the Oklahoma Legislature, leaving indelible memories of chanting crowds and heated rhetoric.

This spring’s session – as well as the concurrent special session that carried over from last year – was dominated by the teacher walkout and the intense debate over tax increases to pay for teacher raises and to boost public education funding.

But lawmakers’ actions went well beyond those critical issues.

PDPics / Creative Commons CC0

Amid the celebrations and self-help resolutions, 2017 began in Oklahoma as it has in many other years: with a rash of people taking their own lives.

In the first week, there nine self-inflicted gunshot deaths, four hangings and a deliberate drug overdose, occurring in cities large and small. With those 14 deaths, the year was off to a familiar tragic start in a state that perennially ranks among the 10 worst in the nation in suicide rates.

Oklahoma Watch

Lawmakers are on their way to passing the largest state budget in Oklahoma history. But that doesn’t mean state agencies have recovered from years of cost-cutting.

The House of Representatives is expected to vote Friday on a $7.5 billion appropriations bill that will be $724 million – or 10.9 percent – more than the state’s current fiscal year budget.

Whitney Bryen / Oklahoma Watch

One of the most iconic images of the teacher walkout and the cuts to education funding that drove the movement was of tattered, duct-taped, antiquated textbooks.

Whitney Bryen / Oklahoma Watch

Days after telling her boss she was pregnant, a 17-year-old fast-food worker in Oklahoma was fired.

An accounting employee was let go from an Oklahoma City pipeline inspection company, two days after requesting information about maternity leave.

A pregnant waitress in her first trimester said the owner of a Choctaw restaurant told her she was being fired because she was too emotional.

Oklahoma State Department of Education

The education advocacy that fueled the teacher walkout also led to a surge of candidates filing for office, including a few surprises in the race for state superintendent.

Joy Hofmeister, state superintendent of instruction, drew four opponents.

Hofmeister, 53, will face two Republican challengers in the June primary: Linda Murphy, of Edmond, and Will Farrell, of Tulsa. Murphy, 66, is a public policy consultant who twice ran against Sandy Garrett for state superintendent. Farrell, 32, is a student at Oklahoma State University and a legal assistant at a Tulsa law firm.

Trevor Brown / Oklahoma Watch

The state will have to find another way to help fund graduate medical education by July 2019 if it wants to use Medicaid matching funds after the federal government denied the Oklahoma Health Care Authority’s latest bid to fix the program’s funding issues.

Ben Fenwick / Oklahoma Watch

This story was updated April 17.

Oklahoma’s prison population will continue to grow in the years ahead — the only question is how much.

A marquee slate of criminal justice reform bills fall short of what Gov. Mary Fallin’s Oklahoma Justice Reform Task Force, a little over a year ago, recommended to curb incarceration rates and provide alternatives to prison.

Whitney Bryen / Oklahoma Watch

The end of the widespread teacher walkout doesn’t mean questions surrounding Oklahoma’s education funding are settled.

Voters will head to the polls this November to chose Oklahoma’s next governor and elect a large swath of the Legislature. But it’s a pair of proposed state questions, which may or may not ultimately appear on the ballot, that could decide if teachers lose recently approved raises or possibly receive further pay increases.

Whitney Bryen / Oklahoma Watch

The victims number in the hundreds across Oklahoma every year, each one a casualty of the state’s epidemic of suicide by firearms.

The youngest last year was a 12-year-old Spiro boy.  The oldest was a 97-year-old Bartlesville man.  Both died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, state data show.

Oklahoma Watch

Oklahoma students lost ground in reading proficiency in the past two years, erasing gains they had made in 2015, newly released data from the “Nation’s Report Card” show.

Nationally, students’ reading scores held steady.

The decline was significant and could raise questions about the efficacy of the state’s third-grade retention policy. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister attributed 2015 gains to the policy.

Hofmeister said Tuesday the results were “deeply concerning.”

Whitney Bryen / Oklahoma Watch

A Catholic priest is accused of sexual misconduct on the campus of St. Gregory’s University in Shawnee and former students and faculty have questioned whether officials at the now-shuttered college failed to properly investigate complaints.

Two women have filed a lawsuit against the university, which closed and filed bankruptcy in December, and St. Gregory’s Abbey, where the priest resides.

Trevor Brown / Oklahoma Watch

For the fifth time since Oklahoma teachers left their classrooms, House Republicans refused to hear a bill that would end a lucrative tax break for high earners and potentially bring an end to the one-week-old teacher walkout.

Eliminating the capital gains tax deduction – something that largely benefits the wealthy – would free up $100 million or more a year that could be used for education and to shore up the state budget. A state-commissioned consulting group last year recommended the tax break be repealed.

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