OKLAHOMA CITY — Gov. Kevin Stitt is vowing to heed a call by 22 GOP lawmakers Wednesday to seek an investigative audit into state education officials’ oversight of public school cost accounting.
The move comes on the heels of State Auditor and Inspector Cindy Byrd’s recent findings, which questioned the oversight of Epic Charter Schools’ use of taxpayer dollars by the state agency run by State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister.
“As governor, I have consistently fought for transparency and accountability across our state government,” Stitt said in response to a request for comment from the Tulsa World. “As we continue to work with the Legislature to invest in public education at the highest levels in our state’s history, it is imperative that these funds are being carefully managed and in compliance with the law.
“I applaud the 22 legislators who publicly expressed their concerns for being good stewards of taxpayer dollars and will work with them to formally request an investigative audit of the Oklahoma State Department of Education.”
Earlier on Wednesday afternoon, a group of Republican lawmakers — 11 state representatives and 11 state senators — issued a joint statement calling on Stitt to request an investigative audit of the state Education Department to determine the full extent and impact of its potential failure to ensure compliance with the Oklahoma Cost Accounting System for public schools.
“If the state auditor is correct in her assessment that the state Department of Education repeatedly neglected its responsibility to ensure compliance with OCAS (Oklahoma Cost Accounting System) and other required reports, one must ask if this dereliction of duty was confined solely to Epic Charter Schools or if it permeates throughout our public education system,” says a statement released by the lawmakers.
“If SDE did in fact routinely fail to perform its regulatory duties, this could result in the discovery of hundreds of millions of dollars of misused funds.”
Asked to respond, Carrie Burkhart, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said:
“We would be happy to visit with any legislator who would want to better understand the audit findings and Epic’s tactics. We are always open to improvement, but we believe this group’s concerns may stem from a misunderstanding of what has occurred as it relates to the audit.”
The audit request is signed by Rep. Jeff Boatman, Tulsa; Rep. Chad Caldwell, Enid; Rep. Denise Crosswhite Hader, Piedmont; Rep. Sheila Dills, Tulsa; Rep. Tom Gann, Inola; Rep. Tommy Hardin, Madill; Rep. Mark Lepak, Claremore; Rep. Garry Mize, Guthrie; Rep. Carl Newton, Cherokee; Rep. Kevin West, Moore; Rep. Rande Worthen, Lawton; Sen. Mark Allen, Spiro; Sen. David Bullard, Durant; Sen. Nathan Dahm, Broken Arrow; Sen. Julie Daniels, Bartlesville; Sen. Brent Howard, Altus; Sen. Casey Murdock, Felt; Sen. Joe Newhouse, Broken Arrow; Sen. Marty Quinn, Claremore; Sen. Dave Rader, Tulsa; Sen. Rob Standridge, Norman; and Sen. Brenda Stanley, Midwest City.
Byrd’s investigative audit of Epic Charter Schools, which was requested by Stitt in 2019, was released Oct. 1.
In all, $125.2 million of the $458 million allocated to Epic Charter Schools, the operator of two public schools, for educating students the past six years was found to have ended up in the coffers of Epic Youth Services, a for-profit charter school management company that reportedly has made millionaires of school co-founders Ben Harris and David Chaney.
The report raises questions that are now up to the Oklahoma attorney general to respond to about the legality of transferring hundreds of thousands of Oklahoma tax dollars to Epic’s California charter school, commingling funds for Epic’s two separate Oklahoma schools and chronically misreporting administrative costs.
The statement says lawmakers take the allegations against Epic very seriously.
“If the allegations against Epic are proven to be accurate, they should be accountable,” the statement says. “While there may be disagreements as to the facts of this case, there can be no debate as to the seriousness of the issues raised by the state auditor.”
Epic has denied any wrongdoing and disputes the state auditor’s report.
But the audit of Epic also points a finger at the state Education Department, finding “ample oversight, but limited accountability,” even when red flags were raised.
State auditors found within the Education Department an accounting system preoccupied with school district compliance — with little to no verification of the information the districts report or accountability for falsehoods or other failings.
Byrd’s report prompted the Oklahoma State Board of Education to demand back $11.2 million in taxpayer funding from the school after the audit found chronically excessive administrative overhead costs and inaccurate cost accounting.
Featured video: State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister talks with the Tulsa World’s Andrea Eger
Epic Charter Schools: A Tulsa World investigation