A Response from the Oklahoma State Dept of Education

Last week we shared this blog post by guest columnist John Wylie concerning Epic Charter Schools, the Open Records Act, and State Senator Ron Sharp. The following is a response from Phil Bacharach, Chief of Staff for the Oklahoma State Department of Education.

FOI Oklahoma stands by Mr. Wylie’s column.

The Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) has never at any time declined to provide Sen. Sharp with any financial information on Epic Charter Schools. The senator has routinely requested such data, and OSDE has always provided all requested information, data and records to which the agency has access. The senator’s now-infamous open records request (ORR) was entirely different: It sought all correspondence between the OSDE agency and Epic schools and their founders over a 12-year period. A request this unusually broad and of this size requires the Office of Management and Enterprise Services (OMES) to complete, and it indeed poses an excessive disruption that requires lengthy legal review of thousands of records to ensure, among other things, protecting student privacy in compliance with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).

Under the Open Records Act, when an open records request causes excessive disruption to an agency’s critical business, that agency can charge a reasonable fee to cover costs of the records review (not a “search fee” as claimed in the blog post). This information is posted on the OSDE website, is on the OSDE’s ORR form, and also notes that response times may vary depending on the scope of the request, how many requests the agency currently has, and the volume of documents that must be screened to ensure protection of confidential information.

OSDE rarely charges a requester, but we occasionally must when significant time and resources are required to complete the request. The senator protested the fee after OMES completed its portion of the work and a total estimate of the cost could be provided. Superintendent Hofmeister met with Sen. Sharp at his request and withdrew the charge, agreeing that OSDE would absorb all costs of a records review that is so voluminous, it is still ongoing.

The suggestion of “foot-dragging” by OSDE in disclosing requested financial information about Epic is simply false, particularly since the ORR at issue is not even regarding finances. Moreover, as recent news reports have made public, the OSDE, for several years now, has worked closely with state and federal investigators regarding a variety of situations related to public schools, their personnel and taxpayer funds, including Epic Charter Schools

The author also accepts at face value Sen. Sharp’s misunderstanding of virtual charters’ direct oversight, even allowing the senator to float an irresponsible suggestion that perhaps someone told Superintendent Hofmeister “not to provide oversight” of Epic. Direct oversight of statewide virtual charters is the purview of the Oklahoma Virtual Charter Board, an entirely different state agency. The Virtual Charter board does so by having statutory authority to spend up to 5 percent of a virtual charter’s state aid for administrative oversight of that virtual charter.

Also, by law in the Charter Act, sponsors such as the Virtual Charter Board are required to have a school performance review and framework built into the charter sponsorship contract. The performance framework must examine student attendance, student academic performance, charter school governing board of education stewardship and performance, graduation rate and financial accountability.

By contrast, the OSDE’s oversight chiefly relates to ensuring that a district — traditional, charter or virtual charter — comply with various federal and state laws, that their data matches up with the state’s data, and the like. If evidence and information show possible wrongdoing, the OSDE can interject with programmatic reviews that might in turn lead to referrals to investigative authorities.

But it is worth noting that the allegations made against Epic, of receiving “ghost students” from private schools and homeschool families, would not have been detected by the OSDE (or even likely the Virtual Charter Board). We do not have legal authority to examine records of private schools or homeschooled children. School enrollment is reported to OSDE by a district superintendent with a sworn statement, upon penalty of perjury, that the data he or she provides is accurate.

The allegations at the heart of the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation probe are extremely alarming. That investigation, as well as the state investigative audit recently called by Gov. Stitt and Supt. Hofmeister, should be allowed to continue without wild accusations for the purpose of political theater.

Phil Bacharach

Chief of Staff, OSDE