Although the state audit of Epic Charter Schools took more than a year to complete, reactions to some of its findings on Thursday came much more swiftly.
The first of what is expected to be a two-part report — which detailed improper transfers, chronic misreporting of costs and lax oversight — was released Thursday afternoon by State Auditor Cindy Byrd in conjunction with a news conference.
“While we are still reviewing the entire contents of the audit, the initial findings are concerning,” said Gov. Kevin Stitt, who called for the audit last year.
“Our state has recently invested in public education at the highest levels in our state’s history, and Oklahomans deserve accountability and transparency on how their hard-earned tax dollars are being spent.”
Calling the report “deeply disturbing,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister said the state Department of Education would “closely examine the most appropriate steps moving forward.”
“It is one thing,” she said, “for a public school to utilize the services of a private vendor, which is common practice, but when that private vendor operates the school in question and can manipulate that structure to obfuscate or mislead, there is something systematically wrong. Oklahomans deserve better.”
Epic officials, however, had a different take on the report and its findings.
“What we witnessed today was political theatrics, but the information was not new and has been in the public realm for many years,” Epic Superintendent Shelly Hickman said, adding that a point-by-point response to the audit’s findings would be provided within 24 hours.
“The conclusion of the report calls for changes to the law; it does not assert that laws have been broken,” she said. “Policymakers should be cautious about believing politicians over parents.”
While promising a more thorough response to come, Hickman did object to the auditor’s assertion that Epic officials were not helpful or cooperative in the process.
“Our school’s staff has spent thousands of hours responding to a seemingly endless fishing expedition,” she said. “We gave them access to our computer system, and to date we have paid $243,000 for the audit.”
Epic sponsor Rose State College, which was called out in the report for lack of oversight, declined to comment on the report Thursday.
“We will hold on until we have had time to thoroughly analyze the document,” a spokeswoman said.
‘There should be consequences’
Epic remains under investigation by the Oklahoma Bureau of Investigation. OSBI said Thursday that its probe is still “very active” and that the audit would be helpful to it.
“The findings will be utilized as the OSBI continues to unravel the many layers of this complicated and intricate investigation,” the bureau said in a statement. “The ultimate goal of this investigation, or any other, is to find the truth. The OSBI will continue in that pursuit.”
A spokesman for Attorney General Mike Hunter said the office had received the audit, but would reserve comment on any possible actions until it had a chance to review it.
Calling the findings “troubling,” John Harrington, chairman of the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, said he would ask the board, which has oversight responsibility for six online public charter schools including EPIC One-on-One, to “consider what steps may be necessary, and to act accordingly for the good of the public.”
“The deeds of a few people should not be allowed to limit the education of any student in Oklahoma,” he said. “Our public deserves honesty and clarity from our school boards and other school leaders — and there should be consequences when those standards are not met.”
State lawmakers also chimed in Thursday.
Sen. Ron Sharp, R-Shawnee, who’s been a vocal Epic critic, said he was “not surprised with the findings.”
“I hope with this information, the OSBI and FBI can conclude their investigations quickly,” he added.
Sharp thanked the governor and the state auditor “for providing oversight and accountability of this unfortunate situation. Past leaders refused to listen to or acknowledge what I was trying to tell them.”
Among several members of the House Democratic Education Policy Group to issue statements Thursday was state Rep. John Waldron, D-Tulsa.
“It is completely inappropriate to allow $125 million meant for Oklahoma public school students to be managed outside the purview of Oklahoma taxpayers,” Waldron said. “We owe our citizens a thorough accounting just as we owe all our public school students a quality education.”
“As we have said from the beginning, our concern has never been about our teachers that work for Epic,” said state Rep. Melissa Provenzano, D-Tulsa. “Our concerns have always been upstream. Were Oklahoma tax dollars being spent on our students? Today it appears we found out they were not.”
Oklahoma Education Association President Alicia Priest called the findings “heartbreaking for Oklahoma students.”
She said lawmakers “must act immediately to close any loopholes that allow virtual charter schools like Epic to play fast and loose with our tax dollars and commit this kind of academic malpractice.”
Going on to thank Byrd for her “extensive work,” Stitt added he “agreed that her findings are not representative of all public charter schools or alternative forms of education.”
The governor said he would work with Hofmeister and the Legislature “to ensure our public education funding provides the maximum benefit for our students and teachers.”
Hofmeister said, “As the coronavirus pandemic has made clear, there is no question that virtual instruction and innovative models are important options for many students and families. These changes are rapidly transforming the education landscape and it is critical that laws, policies and infrastructure keep pace to ensure transparency and accountability.