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Majority of state ed board votes to settle years-old charter schools lawsuit seeking millions more dollars

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Hofmeister blasts lawsuit settlement deal approved 4-3

Oklahoma State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, seen here in a frame grab from Thursday’s virtual meeting, opposed the settlement of a funding lawsuit by charter schools, saying she believes the state school board’s action in approving it violates state law and the constitution, as well as her oath of office.

The Oklahoma State Board of Education split 4-3 Thursday in voting to settle a years-old lawsuit seeking tens of millions more in the share of state taxpayer dollars that all charter schools receive.

The move came against the strong objections of State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister and apparently the legal advice of the board’s own attorney.

In her public comments during the remote meeting, Hofmeister made a point of revealing that the settlement offer had been received only one day earlier.

“Based on legal advice, this violates Oklahoma statute, Oklahoma Constitution and the oath that I swore to uphold when I took office — and I do not support this nor do I think the board should vote to approve this settlement which came in yesterday,” she said ahead of the vote.

All other state board members are appointees of Gov. Kevin Stitt. Trent Smith, the newest member, whom Stitt put in place after abruptly giving the boot to former board member Kurt Bollenbach in December, made the motion to settle the suit.

Smith appeared to be reading the wording of his motion from his computer screen during the virtual meeting, saying, “My motion is to adopt a board resolution to equalize funding between all public schools and charter schools, thereby settling the lawsuit by the Oklahoma Public Charter School Association.”

Smith, along with fellow members Estela Hernandez, Brian Bobek and Jennifer Monies, voted “yes.”

On numerous occasions in the board’s public meetings, Monies has mentioned her service on the board of her son’s school, John Rex Charter Elementary in Oklahoma City, which would stand to benefit from the settlement and which is listed as a member of the Oklahoma Public Charter School Association on the organizations’ website.

Carlisha Williams Bradley and Bill Flanagan cast “no” votes along with Hofmeister.

In July 2017, the Oklahoma Public Charter School Association sued the state Board of Education to try to make a legal case that existing Oklahoma laws are being misinterpreted.

The charter schools group claims the schools are due an equal share of revenues from Oklahoma’s gross production, motor vehicle and rural electrification association tax collections, state school land earnings and county tax collections, which currently flow only to traditional public schools.

An Oklahoma County District Court judge ruled in fall 2017 that attorneys for the Tulsa and Oklahoma City school districts would be allowed to intervene in the statewide charter school association’s legal battle against the state for access to more public funding.

The two inner-city school districts willingly sponsor most of the state’s charter school districts, but the legal battle puts them in direct competition with charter schools for existing dollars.

If the charter schools’ legal effort is ultimately successful, all traditional public schools stand to lose revenue, with the Oklahoma City and Tulsa districts positioned to lose the most.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a national nonprofit advocacy organization that worked with the Oklahoma charter school group for several years, told the Tulsa World in 2017 that legislative remedies were also considered. But ultimately the decision was made to try to make a legal case that existing Oklahoma laws governing charter schools and school finance in general are being misinterpreted, it said.

Hofmeister issued a statement Thursday evening, saying: “Today’s board action circumvents the will of the people of Oklahoma and the state legislature by unilaterally determining how public education is to be funded. I fear this action knowingly violated Oklahoma statute and the Oklahoma Constitution.

“There are serious consequences to this unexpected vote, the most obvious of which is Epic and all statewide virtual charter schools will now receive millions of local dollars from ad valorum funds that are assessed to construct and maintain public school buildings. Local tax revenue will be redistributed.

“This change is likely to have a seismic effect on school funding across the state,” she said, and “the ramifications on schoolchildren are yet to be fully understood.

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Staff Writer

I'm a projects reporter, examining key education topics and other local issues. Since joining the Tulsa World in 1999, I have been a three-time winner of Oklahoma’s top award for investigative reporting by an individual. Phone: 918-581-8470

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