State virtual board vote puts Epic Charter Schools in jeopardy

BY KATHRYN MCNUTT
Oklahoma Watch
10/18/2020 04:00 PM
Main Cherokee Phoenix
An Epic Charter School administrative office building is seen on 122nd St. in northwest Oklahoma City. The Statewide Virtual Charter School Board on Oct. 13 began the process to terminate its contract with Community Strategies Inc. to operate Epic One-on-One. WHITNEY BRYEN/OKLAHOMA WATCH
The future of Oklahoma’s largest virtual school is in jeopardy following an Oct. 13 vote by the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board.

The board’s action begins the process to terminate its contract with Community Strategies Inc. to operate Epic One-on-One. The Oklahoma City-based virtual school, combined with Epic’s blended school, has grown from about 6,000 students in 2016 to more than 60,000 this year.

The board voted 3-1 to take the step on the recommendation of Assistant Attorney General Marie Schuble, who outlined violations of the contract based on an investigative audit of Epic Charter Schools.

Schuble said it will be her job to prove those findings at a hearing, to be held no sooner than Jan. 11, where Epic’s attorneys can present witnesses and evidence. Then the board will vote whether to end the contract.

A public virtual school cannot operate in Oklahoma without a charter contract. The board has only ended a contract once. It voted in 2016 to terminate its contract with ABLE Charter School for noncompliance with the law because of concerns with financing and operations. The smallest of Oklahoma’s virtual charter schools closed in 2018.

Schuble said the Epic Charter Schools audit includes incidents of failure to meet the standards of fiscal management and violations of state law, including the blending of public funds between the two distinct school districts and failure of Epic’s board to review and approve transactions. 

“These are heavy allegations,” Board Chairman John Harrington said. “And I think that it’s important for Epic to be able to speak to those things. But at the end of the day, these obligations are extremely important not just for this … but for all schools.” 

Harrington and board members Barry Beauchamp and Robert Franklin voted to begin the termination process. Phyllis Shepard voted no after saying she would rather let Epic present its side first. Mathew Hamrick was absent.

It is the strongest action the board has taken against Epic, which has been the subject of an Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation probe since 2013.

The Oct. 13 action does not involve Epic Blended, which has a separate contract.

Bart Banfield, superintendent of Epic Charter Schools, told the board Epic will show it is fully compliant with the contract and the law. 

“Fairness did not prevail today, but it’s important to understand what did happen,” Banfield said in a statement issued after the meeting. “So far, only one side of the story has been allowed to be told. We are confident that once we have the audit work papers and have as much opportunity to present our side of the audit as the State Auditor has been provided, we will prevail for our more than 2,100 employees and the families of our more than 60,000 students.”

Gov. Kevin Stitt called for a forensic audit of Epic and its related entities in July 2019 after state and federal law enforcement agencies began investigating its financial dealings.

Brenda Holt, audit manager for the special investigative unit of the State Auditor and Inspector’s office, presented the findings to the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board during the Oct. 13 meeting. Her report noted inappropriate oversight, accounting and spending.

Holt made the same presentation one day earlier to the State Board of Education, which voted unanimously to demand Epic Charter Schools refund $11.2 million in taxpayer money to the state.

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