Virtual Charter School Board Punts On Approval Of Epic Consent Agreement, Calls For More Changes

by Scott Carter

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was produced by the Epic News Network, a journalism program for high school students funded by Epic Charter Schools.

OKLAHOMA CITY – The Statewide Virtual Charter School Board – facing a lawsuit of its own by a sitting member and wrestling with whether or not to end its contract with Epic Charter Schools – stacked executive sessions back-to-back Tuesday in an effort to resolve its on-going fight with Oklahoma’s largest public school district.

The meeting was the second this month for the SVCSB. During their April 6 meeting the board voted to hold a two-day hearing in May over the possible termination of Epic’s contract. Last fall, on October 13, the board voted to begin the process to end its contract with Community Strategies, Inc., the company that currently runs Epic One-on-One and the Epic Blended Learning Centers in Tulsa and Midwest City.

Since then, both sides have worked on proposals to settle the case. Last week, during a marathon meeting of Epic’s Board of Education, board members unanimously approved a draft consent agreement to submit to the SVCSB.

Tuesday afternoon during the SVCSB meeting, Bill Hickman, Epic’s attorney, said that proposal included “all of the terms requested by your executive director (SVCSB Executive Director Rebecca Wilkinson) and then some, even more.”

Documents released by Epic show the agreement makes major changes to the school’s financial and oversight systems including:

• Language that would allow the boards of education of any two more school districts to “enter into an interlocal agreements.”

• A provision requiring Epic to implement a contracting purchasing policy to include ensuring that “all contracts under $150,000 that are entered into on behalf of Epic One-on-One shall be approved and signed by the school’s superintendent.

• A provision that requires contracts over $150,000 to be approved and signed by the chair of the Epic One-on-One’s governing board.

• The creation of a new position, Assistant Superintendent of Finance.

• A provision that ensures that only public employees have access to school funds.

• And a provision that places the schools’ Learning Fund under public control and includes language that states future records from the school’s Learning Fund “shall be public records.”

However, Assistant Attorney General Marie Schuble – who is acting as prosecutor in the hearing against Epic – told the SVCSB board Tuesday that Epic’s proposed consent agreement shouldn’t be adopted because it didn’t do enough to put stricter financial operations in place.

“Epic proposal as its presented should not be approved,” she said. “It does not go far enough to protect the interests of the state and the students enrolled at Epic. To settle this case short of termination, this board must require that Epic implement stricter financial operations, separation of schools and install a proper government.”

 Should the board approve Epic’s agreement as written, she said, Schuble asked that her name and the phrase “on advice from counsel” be removed from the document.

Following the board’s second executive session of the day, Robert Franklin, the SVCSB chairman, asked attorneys for each side to submit a new agreement with additional amendments.

A new agreement would need the approved of Epic’s Board of Education and the SVCSB. Epic’s board has set another meeting for Wednesday, April 21. The next scheduled meeting for the SVCSB is May 11.

The fight between Epic and the SVCSB began after the release of an investigative audit by state Auditor and Inspector Cindy Byrd’s office last year. Byrd’s audit raised questions about how Epic classified its employees and handled its finances.

The audit also found faults with how the state Department of Education handled Epic’s financial reporting over the past several years. Epic administrators pushed back against the audit, releasing information that, they said, showed a 36 percent error rate in the audit and major problems with how the auditor’s office reviewed and classified Epic’s faculty and administrative staff.

Since October, the issue has continued to dominate most SVCSB meetings. The board met at the beginning of this year but took no action on its dispute with Epic. Both the board’s February and March meetings were cancelled.

Shortly after its April 6 meeting, the SVCSB was sued by Mathew Hamrick, a current member of the board, who was forced by a board vote to step away from any discussion and votes related to Epic.

In his lawsuit, Hamrick said the board’s action was invalid because the board violated the state’s Administrative Procedures and Open Meetings Acts when it voted. Hamrick said the board should have filed an affidavit spelling out why he should be disqualified from any votes on Epic before taking any action. He said no such document was filed.

Last year, then-SVCSB Chairman John Harrington spearheaded the drive to prevent Hamrick’s vote. Harrington said Hamrick should not be allowed to vote on matters related to Epic because Hamrick received a $200 campaign contribution from Epic Co-Founder David Chaney in 2016. At that time Hamrick was running for political office.

Since then, Harrington’s term on the board has expired. Republican Governor Kevin Stitt’s office said Harrington’s three-year term ended in October of 2020 and the governor decided to fill the seat with a new appointment. Stitt did not reappoint Harrington.

A hearing in Hamrick’s case is scheduled for May 13 in Oklahoma County District Court.

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