Epic Charter Schools has sued a state senator who raised questions about the school’s student attendance practices.
The state’s largest virtual charter school warned Sen. Ron Sharp, R-Shawnee, in a “cease and desist” letter in September that he faced “immediate legal action” if he didn’t comply with the school’s demand for a published retraction of his previous statements.
On Tuesday, Epic accused Sharp of libel and slander in a lawsuit filed in Oklahoma County District Court. Public records indicate that the school is seeking damages in excess of $75,000.
“Sharp’s statements have exposed Plaintiff, its staff, teachers, parents and students to public hatred, contempt and ridicule; and Sharp’s statements have tended to deprive Plaintiff of public confidence in its mission; and Sharp’s statements have injured Plaintiff,” the court petition states.
In its suit, Epic claims that Sharp has published false statements in communications with the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, the Oklahoma State Auditor and Inspector’s Office, the Oklahoma State Department of Education, and media outlets, including his hometown newspaper in Shawnee, that were false and “imputed criminal conduct on Plaintiff and its representatives.”
As for any protections for lawmakers, Epic claims that Sharp’s statements “were not privileged as such communications were neither made in any legislative or judicial proceeding or any other proceeding authorized by law in the course thereof.”
In a press release issued Tuesday evening, Epic said its governing board “has been left with no other option than to move forward with legal proceedings to protect the school” and voted to seek the legal action at a public meeting on Oct. 19.
In mid-July, Sharp issued the first in a series of news releases questioning how Epic could have received millions of dollars in state funding the previous two years for 3,000 to 4,000 students in middle and high school when the Epic Blended Learning Centers in which they were enrolled could be attended only by students in early education and elementary school grades.
Contacted for comment about the lawsuit Tuesday evening, Sharp said he was simply doing his due diligence as a member of the Senate Education Subcommittee on Appropriations.
“We look at student numbers in districts and allocations. We’re going to be much more interested in virtual charter schools because they get almost 100 percent of their money from state appropriations, unlike a traditional public school district that receives local ad valorem revenue,” he said.
Sharp said he has been inquiring specifically about whether Epic’s Blended Learning Centers, which operate in Tulsa, Oklahoma City and Midwest City, can use the same student attendance policy as Epic One-on-One, which is a statewide virtual charter school.
“The state Department of Education was providing funds to the Blended Learning Centers for student grade levels that Shelly Hickman (an Epic spokeswoman) said they were not accommodating, and that’s why I asked the question,” Sharp said.
The OSBI has an ongoing probe into allegations of embezzlement, obtaining money by false pretenses, racketeering and forgery at Epic.
And as the Tulsa World previously reported, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Department of Education’s law enforcement arm have also been investigating Epic Charter Schools’ student enrollment practices and finances for the past several years.
In response to the law enforcement investigations, Gov. Kevin Stitt requested an investigative audit of Epic Charter Schools and its related entities by the state auditor, which is ongoing.
When asked about his contact with the OSBI and the state auditor, Sharp said: “I can confirm they have asked me questions and I have given them answers. I am not investigating them (Epic) for fraud or embezzlement; I have questioned their student attendance practices.”
Epic Charter Schools: A Tulsa World investigation