• 75°

State auditor questions accounting of Mississippi Department of Education

If State Auditor Stacey Pickering’s accusations are correct, the Mississippi Department of Education needs to clean house.

Pickering on Thursday accused MDE of breaking state laws governing contracts and said he’s continuing to investigate problems, The Associated Press reported.

Pickering released reports on a series of consulting contracts, as well as on problems with after-school grants that forced the department to repay $11.7 million in federal funds. The Republican said he might demand repayment from either vendors or the appointed members of the state Board of Education, depending on future findings. He wouldn’t say whether he intends to refer anyone for criminal prosecution, according to AP.

“They had blatant disregard at the Department of Education for procurement regulations,” Pickering told reporters.

The auditor also questioned a series of contracts with four sets of individuals and companies from 2014 to 2016 that a report from a legislative watchdog agency focused on earlier this week. State agencies at the time were supposed to take bids for service contracts worth more than $100,000, and take quotes from multiple vendors for contracts worth more than $50,000. In some instances, amounts of individual contracts were just under $100,000 or just under $50,000, while total work exceeded those thresholds. The department spent more than $1 million with the contractors, according to AP.

Those weren’t the only problems Pickering found. He criticized contracts with a vendor that he said may not have been legitimate. He also cited problems with accounting procedures that led to MDE improperly diverting $11.5 million in grants.

MDE has denied breaking laws and has said it will work with Pickering on his concerns.

MDE fights for more funding each year, and the people making those funding decisions — lawmakers — certainly will not look kindly on a state agency that is not handling funds properly. The accounting problems, if founded, will give lawmakers an excuse to back off on education funding. And who could blame them?

The problems, if they are as bad as Pickering says, show an agency with insufficient oversight of its accounting practices. Taxpayers deserve better than this.