Senator Sharp’s ORA war with state Ed Dept. proves prophetic: OSBI alleges Epic Charter Schools embezzled millions with ‘ghost students’

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Senator Sharp’s ORA war with state Ed Dept. proves prophetic: OSBI alleges Epic Charter Schools embezzled millions with ‘ghost students’

Rumblings that gained steam during an Open Records Act battle between a state senator trying to determine if taxpayer dollars for Oklahoma school students are properly disbursed to EPIC Charter Schools exploded with revelations that an OSBI probe alleges the state’s biggest for-profit charter school embezzled millions of dollars, obtained money by false pretenses and engaged in racketeering.

            The revelation also is expected to reinforce the ORA ban on state agencies illegally charging search fees of hundreds or thousands of dollars for records requests designed to ensure that state money is “honestly (and) faithfully” spent.

Republican State Senator Ron Sharp unsuccessfully sought State Department of Education records to resolve discrepancies involving 7,073 students who received state aid for a year’s enrollment in grades at Epic Blended Charter School during 2017-18 and 2018-19 even though EPIC had said on line and in writing that it offered no classes those years in those grade levels.

            Despite his seat on the Appropriations Committee’s Education Subcommittee, he couldn’t get answers from OSDE so he did what any citizen can do: filed an ORA request.

            After three months of foot-dragging, OSDE said he’d have to pay an $850 search fee because of the volume of material he wanted to review, triggering him to issue a thick press packet on his independent findings and concerns.

            While saying it was unclear if there was a “clerical error” or misspending of millions of dollars in state money that should have gone to other schools, Sharp said today Senate staff didn’t tell him that both search fees and obstruction of information requests to answer such questions are illegal.

The law says that “in no case be’’ can such cost be imposed “when the release is in the public interest” and the requestor is “seeking to determine whether those entrusted with the affairs of the government are honestly, faithfully, and competently performing their duties.”

            He told us this morning that he knew as a lawmaker and a 38-year-veteran Shawnee High School Social Studies teacher that something was wrong, but still isn’t clear about the role of State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister. That’s why he’s pushed the request so hard.

            “My question is, has she been told by someone not to provide oversight (of Epic), or are the (schools’ growth so overwhelming that proper oversight is impossible).

            “Was there a deliberate conspiracy by Epic? Before I make an allegation I need to have all the information. Everything they are doing is for profit.”

            Viewers in the Tulsa and Oklahoma City TV market areas, for example, have noticed a blitz of Epic ads seeking enrollees It is as glossy and pervasive as a campaign for a major candidate in a hotly contested election.

            The role of individuals or institutions beyond Epic remain unclear, but the allegations against it exploded like a bombshell Tuesday.

            An OSBI search warrant affidavit and return was unsealed after raids the previous night which Democratic Rep. Melissa Provenzano of Tulsa lawmaker said showed “10 million dollars stolen.” Democratic Rep. Jacob Rosencrants said the embezzlement revealed Tuesday was “just the tip of the iceberg.” Sen. Sharp said he wanted to carefully review all the data now coming in before drawing a definitive conclusion, but the estimates were consistent with his fears of what the documents he was seeking would reveal.

            He noted Rose State College administers the Epic program currently under closest scrutiny, but he also has questions about a different kind of charter school program administered through Langston University, so both those higher education institutions and their respective boards of regents need to be scrutinized to be sure they are doing and have the resources to do that job. OSDE obviously needs scrutiny, he said, as do other parts of state government and even the Legislature itself.

            He said he introduced legislation in the last session of the legislature to use a successful model in Florida to properly regulate state funding for charter but it never even got a committee hearing.

            “You could have had transparency and accountability, but it went nowhere,” he said Wednesday.

            Instead, the current system puts payments to charter schools--$800/student two years ago, $900/student for the year just ended and $1,000/student for the coming year. Those funds come off the top of the state aid formula, he said, meaning public schools divide what’s left.

            “What Epic has done with this embezzlement us starve our poorer rural schools. That makes this even more tragic,” he added.

            Hoffmeister’s staff lawyers had already agreed to drop the fee for the ORA request, apparently without acknowledging it was illegal.

Tuesday night she issued a statement saying the OSBI allegations are “extremely serious and disturbing”, adding that her department “stands ready to work with any criminal investigations to determine if public education and countless Oklahoma taxpayers have been defrauded of millions of dollars.”

            But she added, “In the meantime it is important to let the legal system do its job…We understand that today’s events may create confusion and stress for many students and families. They have our support.”

            Epic Assistant Superintendent Shelly Hickman denied wrongdoing, saying the schools are audited yearly “and we are supremely confident that we operate our public school systems within the boundaries of state and federal law. Since our inception in 12011 we have time after time proven ourselves innocent of all allegations. We will again.

“This latest attack comes at a time when our growth makes status quo education lobbying groups uncomfortable. We are considering legal action to combat what we consider a coordinated effort to damage our school, and co-founders and our staff.”

Replied Sharp, “They’re going to fight back. They can’t sue me—I’m a senator,” adding that he had immediate support from Democrats who issued public statements Tuesday night when news of the OSBI initial finding broke. He’s also had quiet congratulations from Republicans, but with little publicity because generally Republican leaders support charter schools.

            He also noted that one area not yet really touched is that because of explosive growth the needs of all students with disabilities may not being met at Epic “brick and mortar facilities,”-- which would be another violation of school laws. As the public learns of the scope of problems, he concludes, he believes there will be growing demand for reform.

            The bottom line for all this, whether you’re a powerful lawmaker or Joe Sixpack, private citizen, “Never underestimate the power of citizens armed with good government transparency laws. They’re like muscles--the more they are used wisely and effectively, the stronger citizens get.”