EDITOR’S NOTE: The Epic News Network is a statewide journalism program for students of Epic Charter Schools and is funded and supported by Epic Charter Schools.
OKLAHOMA CITY – A multicounty grand jury issued an interim report Thursday, which called for major changes in the management and oversight of Epic Charter Schools and the nonprofit that oversees the school.
The recommendations, detailed in a 26-page report, included many changes already made by the school in its settlement with the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board. That agreement was finalized by a vote by a unanimous vote by SVCSB on April 27.
The grand jury returned no criminal indictments but added that it would reconvene in June and continue “summoning of additional witnesses and (the) gathering of additional physical evidence.”
The grand jury said it would continue its review of Epic because of a “lack of transparency in the account for funds, intentional avoidance of disclosure of information by a private entity and a lack of cooperation.”
The grand jury began its study of Epic last December after Attorney General Mike Hunter named a special council in his office to review an audit report released by state Auditor and Inspector Cindy Byrd.
Epic officials said Byrd’s audit was flawed and had numerous errors. School spokesman, Shelly Hickman, said Epic’s board has made significant corrective actions to its operation since October 2020.
“Epic Youth Services (is) no longer operationally or financially managing or controlling the school,” Hickman said in a media statement. “The school itself has fully cooperated in providing public records. We will continue to fully cooperate in sharing any information we have with the grand jury.”
The grand jury said it was concerned by the amount of money flowing to Epic and what it viewed as a lack of oversight and transparency.
“These concerns are focused specifically on the appropriate use of the substantial amount of public funds which have, and continue to be, flowing through the Epic Charter Schools. By failing to provide appropriate oversight, the entities responsible have allowed significant public funds to be diverted into private accounts without transparency,” the report said.
In its report, the grand jury listed 10 areas of concern about the school, including a lack of oversight, lack of transparency in operation and a lack of accountability by the for-profit company Epic Youth Services.
The report also made ten recommendations. Those recommendations include:
• A request that the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency conduct an evaluation of the school and report its findings.
• Disclosure and acknowledgement that any funds provided for the education of students – including the Student Learning Fund – are public funds and (are) easily reviewed and reconciled.
• A call to the school’s governing board, Community Strategies, to immediately change its method of operating to provide for greater accountability and transparency.
• Better oversight by Charter Sponsors by making them liable for returning to the state the (3-5%) administrative fee if the public funds are found to be spent inappropriately.
• Increased accountability of Educational Management Organizations who operate public charter schools.
• A recommendation that the Oklahoma Legislature publish all operating contracts for Charter Management Organizations operating schools and publish a comparison of management fees paid.
• A requirement that in-depth and independent financial audits be conducted during the midpoint of the charter school contract prior to renewal and any audits conducted for public charter schools be conducted by the State Auditor or selected from a list of approved auditors maintained by the state auditor.
• Changes in oversight by state Department of Education through contract or the Oklahoma Legislature through statute, to provide claw back provisions for the return of funds not accounted for or inappropriately spent.
• A call on the state Department of Education to provide better oversight of entities receiving funds.
• A recommendation that the Oklahoma Legislature consider additional accountability and transparency provisions if a for-profit entity is to manage a public charter school.
In its report, the grand jury acknowledged that “some changes are being considered in the operation of Epic One-on-One and are scheduled to be implemented pursuant to a Settlement Agreement.”
“The Multicounty Grand Jury hopes this Interim Report can serve as a helpful tool for parents, policy makers and oversight entities to consider actions which could be taken to improve the accountability, transparency and oversight of Epic Charter Schools,” the report said. “Parents should be able to seek innovative opportunities for the education of their students, without such a cloud of uncertainty. The public should have confidence their funds are being spent correctly and on the purpose for which they were intended.”