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Epic settlement monitor says Learning Fund billing didn't match enrollment at Epic One-on-One
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Epic One-on-One

Epic settlement monitor says Learning Fund billing didn't match enrollment at Epic One-on-One

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OKLAHOMA CITY — Epic One-on-One’s 2020-21 Learning Fund bills were based on the total number of students enrolled at any point during a two-month window rather than on its confirmed enrollment, document reviews by a settlement compliance monitor show.

Addressing the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board on Thursday afternoon, Skylar Lusnia told the board that his review of the online charter school’s financial records show that its former management company, Epic Youth Services, invoiced Epic One-on-One $39.5 million for its 2020-21 Learning Fund.

That figure was based on the 39,596 students who were listed as enrolled at the online school for any length of time between Sept. 1 and Nov. 9, 2020, rather than on the school’s average daily membership or its confirmed enrollment on Oct. 1, the date traditionally used for student counts.

The school’s highest confirmed enrollment during the 2020-21 school year was about 36,000 in October. Its lowest confirmed enrollment was just under 30,000 students near the end of the school year.

Lusnia is reviewing the online charter school’s records as part of a consent agreement reached earlier this year with the board, which sponsors Epic One-on-One. Under the terms of the agreement, he has to have access to financial documentation, policies and procedures, including Epic One-on-One’s Learning Fund records.

“I expect on average to be at their site once a week, and generally one thing leads to another,” he said. “If I look at one thing, I usually wind up with questions about another.”

Lusnia told the board Thursday that while he is encouraged by some of the changes that have already taken place, he still has concerns from his review.

The Learning Fund is used to provide Epic One-on-One students $1,000 each. Once any curriculum and technology costs are covered, those funds can be spent on books and materials ordered directly through the school or paid to outside vendors for extracurricular activities.

However, in a review of 11 Learning Fund accounts, Lusnia noted that in-house fees and charges were not universally applied at the same rates.

With Epic One-on-One’s student count consistently declining through the course of the school year, Lusnia said Epic Youth Services could have received at least $4 million in extra funds after former students’ Learning Fund accounts were zeroed out upon withdrawal from the school.

The explanation he was given was that the zeroed-out accounts made it possible for late enrollees to have access to funds, as well, but was not able to see definitive confirmation to that end, he said.

“The review made it blatantly clear that the coming changes are imperative,” he said, noting that the school staff was “pleasantly eager” to work with him during his two site visits in May and June.

As part of the settlement, those coming changes include moving the Learning Fund accounts to bank accounts under school control and imposing additional policies to facilitate tracing expenses, including requiring purchase order numbers.

Additionally, Learning Fund balances will not be able to carry over after June 30, 2022, and the $200 additional credit for recruiting additional students to the online school will be eliminated.

Another portion of the agreement called for changes to Epic One-on-One’s governing board.

Although the school’s governing board has been overhauled in recent months, it is still short one parent member. With the initial July 1 deadline looming, the state virtual charter board voted to grant a one-month extension.

“We don’t want to be dismissive of the heavy lift they’ve made so far,” Statewide Virtual Charter School Board President Robert Franklin said.

The online school will be asked to present additional information in July on two fronts, including an explanation for why it should still be allowed to continue sharing a governing board with Epic Blended for the next 12 months as requested by the schools’ attorney, Bill Hickman.

As part of the settlement, the two charter schools under the Epic Charter Schools umbrella, Epic One-on-One and Epic Blended, are to be formally treated as separate school districts, complete with separate sponsorship agreements, governing boards, school leaders, faculties and financial records.

“I certainly understand that Epic One-on-One is trying to separate things out, but I think a year is far too long to look at,” Franklin said.

Epic One-on-One officials will also be asked to provide a corrective plan for the school’s performance on its most recent framework report.

State law requires charter school authorizers to provide oversight based on a framework report that looks at several categories, including academic performance, financials, attendance, school governance and accreditation status.

According to a report presented to the board Thursday, Epic One-on-One scored 45%. Any school that scores below 80% has to reapply for its contract to be renewed. The document was not publicly available as of press time.

Calling the school’s academic performance “absolutely unacceptable,” Franklin said Epic officials will be able to come back before the board to explain the school’s situation and how they will address it.

“This was based on prepandemic data, so they can’t say this is because of a groundswell of students or because they were scrambling,” he said.

Reached via email Thursday evening, Epic spokeswoman Shelly Hickman said the school has already started taking corrective actions.

“The data presented today is based on 2018 performance,” she wrote. “The majority of students coming to Epic are behind in one or more grade levels in one or more subjects but we have instituted several improvement strategies since 2018. Moreover, recent corrective measures of our board have us completely focused on meeting the SVCSB’s framework expectations.”

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I am a third-generation graduate of Oklahoma State University and a board member for both Oklahoma SPJ and the Native American Journalists Association. When not chasing stories, I'm usually chasing my children or our pets.

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