OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma’s largest school district is strong and ready for the future its superintendent said this week.
Speaking at a retreat for Epic Charter School administrators, Bart Banfield, the school’s superintendent, said Epic had, over the past two years, survived “the single, darkest period” in its history.
“It was a time filled with doubt and the very existence of school called into question,” he said.
Banfield said those two years were difficult for school officials, parents and students. He said the turmoil caused the school to make more changes than any other school in the state.
“The choice to make was clear,” he said. “If we were to continue as a school at all dramatic, meaningful and profound changes had to be made. These threats to our existence were very real.”
Banfield said Epic had outgrown its relationship with Epic Youth Services, the for-profit entity that operated the school. He said the district needed to chart a new course. “It had to happen,” he said.
By ending the relationship with EYS, Banfield said the school will see a savings of $40 million. He said the school will now have superior technology and school administrators will be able to streamline operations and innovate in ways they weren’t previously able to.
“We are no longer a top-down organization,” he said. “We are going to have great resources.”
In addition to millions in savings, Banfield said the school has set a $40,000 base salary for all teachers and was working aggressively to restore the school’s public trust. He said Epic has, as of this week, already enrolled more than 39,000 students, adding that administrators expect enrollment to peak at about 45,000.
He said those figures were reached without using a “controversial advertising campaign.”
Epic’s attorney, Bill Hickman of Norman, agreed. Hickman, who also addressed the school’s administrators during the event, said Epic has faced an onslaught of negative media coverage and lawsuits.
On Oct. 1, 2020, the school district and EYS were blistered in an investigative audit by State Auditor and Inspector Cindy Byrd’s office.
Byrd’s office said it was concerned by Epic’s Learning Fund, a program that earmarks $1000 for each student to spend on extra-curricular activities such as gymnastic training or fencing classes.
That fund, state record show, spent more than $70 million dollars, however because the funds were spent by EYS, management company officials said the funds were private and refused to release details about the expenditures.
Byrds’ office filed a lawsuit to gain access to the funds.
“The $79.3 million has never been audited by an outside agency and continues to remain hidden behind a wall of privacy,” the audit stated. “This $79.3 million, coupled with the $45.9 million paid [Epic Youth Services] for Management Fees resulted in almost 28 percent of the entire Epic Charter School budget, a total of more than $125 million in educational funds, being managed outside of the purview of the taxpayers of Oklahoma.”
Eleven days later, on Oc. 12, 2020, the state entity that authorizes Epic’s virtual program, the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, began termination proceeding against Epic. Epic officials and the SVCSB eventually settled and ended the termination process after Epic agreed to make several changes in its operation.
In May, the board of directors of Community Strategies, Inc., the non-profit entity that oversees Epic, voted unanimously to terminate its contract with Epic Youth Services.
“After the auditor’s press conference, that’s when the floodgates opened,” Hickman said. “Two state agencies, literally within three weeks of each other unleased Hell’s furry on us.”
Hickman also criticized the harsh media coverage of the school. As an example, he pointed to a news report published in 2019 where three former Epic teachers accused the school of wrongdoing. Hickman said all three teachers had been previously terminated by the school and the trio eventually dropped their lawsuits against the school.
Hickman said the former teachers each signed statements saying there was no wrongdoing by the school. “All we did was pay for the cost of litigation,” he said. “I think it was the right thing to do for the school.”
Hickman said the school district has made many positive changes including making its learning fund public and ensuring that all future learning fund expenditures were public records. He said an agreement signed May 26 terminated any relationship with Epic’s founders and their company.
“(That agreement) ends the relationship with the completely and fully,” he said. “I know this isn’t easy for some people, but this is what we had to do to keep the doors open and serve kids.”
Still, even with the changes both Banfield and Hickman acknowledged the school still faces several legal issues including a lawsuit by Byrd’s office, an open records lawsuit by the non-profit journalism organization, Oklahoma Watch and a second audit report centered on Epic’s learning fund.
Banfield said at the height of the pandemic Epic served more than 80,000 students. And though he said the school’s future enrollment won’t be that high, he said Epic’s future remains bright.
“This is new dawning for our school,” he said. “The light has returned to Epic. The state of our school is strong.”