A recent report has criticized the Federal Emergency Management Agency for lack of oversight of the Joplin School District after the May 2011 tornado.
The report, published in June by the Office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, essentially served as an audit of federal funds that Joplin Schools received for its rebuild projects after several schools were destroyed by the tornado. It found that lax accounting of federal dollars from FEMA and its state counterpart to the school district put that money at risk of being mismanaged. It found no illegal activity from any of the agencies involved or the Joplin School District, although the district did come in for some criticism as well.
"The great thing is there was no allegation of one penny that was spent illegally," said Ron Lankford, assistant superintendent of business services for the Joplin School District. "Yes, some things may or may not have happened the right way. ... I don't think it was deliberate."
The report was critical of FEMA Region VII (Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska) for its "limited and passive role" in overseeing the federal funds that were flowing into the school district for the rebuilding of schools. FEMA didn't ensure that its state counterpart in Missouri was administering the grant program adequately, and it provided limited guidance on how to implement certain requirements, auditors said.
"Without effective oversight, FEMA cannot hold grantees and subgrantees accountable for complying with federal regulations and FEMA policies," the report says.
The State Emergency Management Agency also was criticized for "conced(ing) its authority as the grant manager by not enforcing program and administrative plan requirements to ensure Joplin Schools adhered to federal requirements and by not seeking enforcement remedies." Auditors said Missouri was responsible for overall administration of procedures to implement the grant program and that it didn't effectively manage the school district.
As a result of the lack of oversight from FEMA and SEMA, auditors dinged the Joplin School District for not complying with federal regulations to award contracts and solicit bids.
They charged that the district relied too heavily on its grant contract manager rather than advice from the state and that it renewed its contract with that firm in a way that did not comply with federal rules. Additionally, auditors said the district didn't take affirmative steps, as required for federal contracts, to solicit disadvantaged firms (such as minority- or women-owned firms) for its construction-related contracts.
Auditors believed that district officials "were either unaware of or did not understand" the regulations with which they needed to comply to be eligible for FEMA grants.
Former Superintendent C.J. Huff, who was at the helm of the school district at the time of the tornado and during the rebuilding phase, said he and his staff had no experience working with federal contracts early in the process. The district had "multiple conversations" and "worked very closely" with FEMA and SEMA about getting the destroyed schools operational and rebuilt.
"That was always front and center, and we always consulted with the contractors we had in place," he said. "We tried to dot every I and cross every T to make sure we did things right."
Huff believes he and other district officials did what they could under the circumstances and that making the best decision for Joplin's schoolchildren was at the forefront of each project.
"I think everybody, not just us but FEMA and SEMA, was trying to do the very best they could," he said. "We got done what we intended to get done, which was get our schools rebuilt as quickly as possible."
Noting that none of Joplin's current administrators were in their roles at the time of the tornado and during the rebuilding process, Lankford said he doesn't believe any disregard for federal rules was deliberate. He said the school district and administrators at the time were dealing with the biggest natural disaster this area had ever seen, and officials at SEMA and FEMA were similarly dealing with one of the largest disasters the nation had seen in decades.
"This (the faults noted in the report) is a result of the emotions of the time," he said. "I think what it (the report) boils down to is here are things that could have been done better, but there was nothing that was done that was illegal."
Because of the findings, auditors had "no assurance" that the federal funds were spent correctly, they said in the report. They recommended that FEMA not reimburse many of the costs submitted to it by the school district for the rebuild projects.
But officials with FEMA, who concurred with all of the report's recommendations, noted that many of them had already been addressed between 2017, when the auditors completed their fieldwork, and 2020, when the report was published.
"Since the OIG completed its fieldwork for this audit nearly two years ago, FEMA Region VII has taken significant steps to strengthen state, local and tribal grant management capabilities," said Paul J. Taylor, regional administrator for FEMA, in the agency's formal response to the audit in February. "FEMA Region VII engages with grantees and subgrantees throughout the year and in a variety of venues, such as monthly closeout meetings, regular financial oversight activities and annual workshops to discuss recent policy updates and grant management requirements."
Despite the recommendation that FEMA disallow some costs submitted by the school district, the agency had already determined by the time the report was published that Joplin Schools was eligible for roughly $56 million in reimbursement costs for its rebuild projects and had paid that amount.
That means there's no money that the school district owes FEMA, or vice versa, and no money that the district must repay FEMA, Lankford said.
"Everything is closed out, over and done with," he said. "There's nothing pending concerning FEMA or construction of the devastated properties."
In total, the school district received approximately $58 million from FEMA, $5.8 million from SEMA, $106.9 million in insurance proceeds and proceeds from a $62 million bond issue that voters approved in 2012, according to records kept by the district's finance department.
In all, 10 of 20 school buildings were damaged or destroyed. The new schools were completed and open by 2014, with final closeout from FEMA occurring last year.
Because none of the report's recommendations for improvement were directed at the school district, officials there view the report as a "reminder" of the extra criteria that are associated with federal grants.
"To me, the reminder is when you spend federal dollars, they carry with them standards that do not necessarily come with local dollars," Lankford said.