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New auditor sets focus on schools, COVID funding

by Ryan Pivoney | January 10, 2023 at 4:02 a.m.
Julie Smith/News Tribune photo: Scott Fitzpatrick, at right, repeats the oath of office as state auditor as adminstered by Judge Jack A.L. Goodman of the Court of Appeals Southern District, at left, as Mallory Fitzpatrick holds the bible on which the auditor took his oath.

Missouri Auditor Scott Fitzpatrick is prioritizing reviews of school districts and COVID-19 relief programs as he settles into his new role.

Fitzpatrick announced his plans for office after he was sworn-in as Missouri's 39th auditor Monday in a ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda. With the COVID-19 pandemic causing a surge in government spending, the former state treasurer vowed to take a closer look at how schools and local governments are spending the money.

"My office will be a watchdog for taxpayers in the coming years as we review the spending and let them know how the money was used," he said. "While I hope we don't find any fraud or embezzlement, I think we probably will. And when we do, we will work with law enforcement to bring those responsible to justice."

"Today is the start of a new chapter," he continued, "and I am ready for the task at hand."

The federal government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic pumped unprecedented funding to the state and local communities. Fitzpatrick said that resulted in the most significant increases to government spending in a lifetime.

Missouri received nearly $12 billion in federal COVID relief funding and has spent more than $9.2 billion of it, sending millions to local governments and political subdivisions around the state.

Fitzpatrick said the explosion of spending at all levels of government made it easy for taxpayer money to be wasted, misappropriated or stolen.

"And even though Missourians are dealing with rampant inflation and rising interest rates, we haven't really even started paying the price of it yet," he said. "This money was borrowed, and it will eventually have to be paid back."

Public K-12 education is the second largest spending category in Missouri behind social services.

State lawmakers gave the auditor power to audit school districts about 15 years ago. Fitzpatrick said few resources in the Auditor's Office have been put to the task since then, adding that an average of about one of Missouri's more than 500 districts has been reviewed annually.

"We have to ensure the billions of dollars that we send to our schools each year are being spent effectively and are being used to prepare kids for the workforce and for higher education," he said.

State law requires all financial, transportation and attendance records of school districts to be audited every two years. Many school districts contract with an auditing firm to complete the requirement. When asked why that's not adequate, Fitzpatrick said he is interested in conducting performance audits as well as financial audits.

About two-thirds of Missouri K-12 students are not proficient in math or science and about half can't read at their grade level, according to statewide testing results. Fitzpatrick cited the figures as a reason to audit school districts.

"School audits will be a top priority of mine in the coming years because parents and taxpayers deserve to know how their money is being spent by their schools and that their kids are being provided appropriate education," he said.

"The tests that we have on math, reading, science are not good, so I think we need to take a look at that," he told reporters Monday. "We're spending more money than we ever have. I think that there's a reason for the state auditor to be there."

Fitzpatrick campaigned on auditing school curriculum to weed out critical race theory. He told reporters Monday that he expects the Legislature to change the law surrounding school curriculum to allow that to happen.

The 35-year-old said he's the youngest statewide officeholder in the country but that he gained the necessary experience early in his career and still has "plenty of time and gas in the tank to put what I've learned to work for the people of Missouri."

Fitzpatrick said he's seen "the good, the bad and the ugly" at all levels of government during his two decades as a business owner and last decade as a state elected official.

The Shell Knob native recalled walking into the Capitol for the first time as an adult and being struck by the building's beauty. He was a 19-year-old college student at the University of Missouri looking to file paperwork to form a small dock building business.

About four years later, he returned to seek advice from his elected officials about running for office. The next year, he was a member of the Missouri House of Representatives.

"You're struck with a deep sense of gratitude for the opportunity you've been given and a solemn responsibility to use that opportunity to do the right thing, even if not always the thing that's the most popular," he said about becoming a public official.

Fitzpatrick rose to statewide prominence in 2018 when he was appointed Missouri treasurer by Gov. Mike Parson. He then ran a successful statewide campaign for the office in 2020 before setting his eyes on the Auditor's Office in 2022 and winning the election in November.

The November election flipped Missouri's only statewide office held by a Democrat to Republicans.

Fitzpatrick recognized the transition and thanked outgoing Auditor Nicole Galloway for making it an easy one. Galloway is not seeking another public office.

"She and her staff have been very welcoming and forthcoming with information that we've requested during the transition, and I'm very grateful for that," Fitzpatrick said. "This has been a transition where everyone has worked together for the good of the taxpayers, and we very much appreciate the professionalism over the last two months. And I wish you all the best in your next endeavor."

Fitzpatrick is inheriting several senior employees in the Auditor's Office but said staffing is at a historic low. He's bringing four employees from the Treasurer's Office and said he's working on establishing a partnership with the accounting department at the University of Missouri to build up staffing.

The state auditor oversees a staff of more than 100 employees, according to the office's website. The office is responsible for establishing appropriate accounting systems for state officials, reviewing the books of state agencies and auditing the treasury at least once per year. The financial accounts of political subdivisions also fall under the auditor's purview, according to the state constitution.

State auditors can serve unlimited terms, unlike treasurers who are capped at two, and are not required to have any special certifications, according to the constitution.

Galloway was paid $110,327.36 as the state auditor in 2022, according to the Missouri Accountability Portal.

  photo  Julie Smith/News Tribune Nicole Galloway, second from left, visits briefly with first lady Teresa Parson, at left, Gov. Mike Parson and Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe Monday before the start of the ceremony to swear in Scott Fitzpatrick as Missouri auditor.
  photo  Julie Smith/News Tribune Shortly before the swearing-in ceremony for Scott Fitzpatrick as the state auditor, he visited briefly with Nicole Galloway, who was in that role until recently after deciding not to run for statewide office again. During his speech, Fitzpatrick publicly thanked Galloway for her help in the transition.
  photo  Julie Smith/News Tribune Shortly before the swearing-in ceremony for Scott Fitzpatrick as the state auditor, he visited briefly with Nicole Galloway, who was in that role until recently after deciding not to run for statewide office again. During his speech, Fitzpatrick publicly thanked Galloway for her help in the transition.
  photo  Julie Smith/News Tribune With a front row seat for the swearing-in ceremony for Scott Fitzpatrick were Gov. Mike and first lady Teresa Parson, newly appointed treasurer Vivek Malek, former auditor Nicole Galloway, Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe and Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft.
  photo  Julie Smith/News Tribune Rep. Renee Reuter, R-Imperial, watches from the third floor railing as Scott Fitzpatrick is sworn in as Missouri's state auditor. Reuter is a freshman legislator who was sworn in last Wednesday to her newly elected role.
  photo  Julie Smith/News Tribune photo: Nicole Galloway, left, and Gov. Mike Parson have a pleasant visit Monday, Jan. 9, 2023, before the start of the noon ceremony to swear in Scott Fitzpatrick as the state auditor, the role most recently held by Galloway.


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