The governing board of Epic Charter Schools underwent a major overhaul Wednesday night and then declared its independence from the for-profit school management company owned by Epic’s co-founders.
Epic’s seven-member board of education unanimously approved a mutual termination agreement, effective July 1, to end its contract with Epic Youth Services, which reportedly has made millionaires of founders David Chaney and Ben Harris.
“Big day for our school; big shift, obviously,” said the newly seated board Chair Paul Campbell, an aerospace and energy executive who founded the Academy of Seminole charter school.
“This school has outgrown its management company, which is why we did what we did today. There is no more CMO (charter management organization). … Not only will we save tens of millions of dollars, but you’re taking a significant leap forward in technology for this school.
“It’s time to close the chapter that was written during the first 10 years. This is a not-for-profit school, and it will be for as long as I’m here.”
Two members of the board — longtime member and board secretary Betsy Brown and a recent addition, JP Franklin — resigned ahead of Wednesday’s meeting.
Then the remaining three members voted to appoint a slate of four new board members and suggested that more new faces could be added to the board in the near future.
Besides Campbell, the new board members are Ginger Casper, an attorney; Jon Tatum, a forensic accountant; and Danny Williams, an attorney who served as U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Oklahoma from 2012 to 2017.
At the conclusion of the meeting, former board Chair Doug Scott resigned.
“It’s time for me to step down. It’s time for this school to close a chapter and start a new one, and that includes me moving on,” said Scott, a Tulsa attorney.
In early October, a report on the state’s investigative audit of Epic revealed lax school board oversight and that one of every four taxpayer dollars Epic received went to the for-profit school management company, Epic Youth Services.
The state auditor found that 63% of those monies — nearly $80 million budgeted for students’ learning needs — has been shielded from all public or auditor scrutiny. The auditor is still battling in court to get access to those spending records.
The state audit also revealed that Epic Youth Services was relying almost solely on Oklahoma public school employees to do the administrative work for both Epic’s Oklahoma and California schools while collecting tens of millions of dollars in management fees.
It also found that the company “improperly transferred” $203,000 in Oklahoma taxpayer dollars from the Oklahoma schools’ student Learning Fund account to help cover payroll shortages at Epic’s California charter school.
Harris and Chaney issued a written statement to the media on Wednesday evening:
“At this time, we feel it is best for EYS and Epic to pause our professional relationship and to give each entity a chance to determine how to best serve families moving forward,” the statement reads in part. “While this is a sad and difficult decision for us, we believe it is in the best interests of EYS and, most importantly, the 50,000 plus students Epic Charter Schools and EYS currently serve.”
After Harris and Chaney issued their statement, Campbell issued a rather emphatic clarification to Epic’s staff, parents and students during Wednesday evening’s public meeting.
“This is final, this is not a pause in any stretch of the imagination. This isn’t like we’re taking time to think about it and reassess. We are not reassessing anything when it comes to a CMO, especially Epic Youth Services,” he said. “This relationship is done as long as this board is in place.
“This is not a pause of a relationship, and I want to be clear about that.”
In a separate vote on Wednesday, Epic’s governing board severed all ties to Epic subsidiary Community Strategies-CA LLC.
Scott said the Epic Oklahoma governing board had been led to believe the relationship with Community Strategies-CA would save the Oklahoma schools money by sharing human resources, “but it turns out that necessarily wasn’t the case.” Severing all ties “will end something that maybe we should never have done in the beginning,” Scott remarked.
Community Strategies-CA LLC was responsible for Epic’s management deal with Panola Public Schools in Latimer County in 2017 and its school expansion efforts in California and Texas.
The Tulsa World previously reported on campaign contributions from Epic co-founders Chaney and Harris and other former top executives at the school to now-Rep. Preston Stinson, R-Edmond.
Stinson served as chairman of the board of Community Strategies-CA LLC from 2015 to 2020, signing the contracts from when Epic opened a school in southern California, branched out to manage the small Oklahoma school district of Panola and its expansion efforts in Texas, which have been on hold amid still-ongoing criminal inquiries by state and federal law enforcement agencies.
Board members Kathren Stehno and Wyjuana Montgomery, who were appointed to the Epic board after the release of the state audit, remain on the board. Stehno was elected vice chair, and Casper was elected secretary.