The lone remaining board member of a school district facing forced consolidation says the co-founder of Epic Charter Schools offered to rescue the district in an unorthodox move.
The Oklahoma State Board of Education is poised to vote Thursday morning on the consolidation of Swink Public Schools, a rural district between Hugo and Idabel that serves 140 students in prekindergarten through eighth grade.
“I got a call from Ben Harris (of Epic) about two weeks ago. He had heard that we were in trouble, and he was offering the possibility to annex into Panola, the little district they already control,” said Lewis Collins, a retired longtime Choctaw County sheriff who has served on the Swink school board for five months.
“I told him, ‘I’m a one-man board. Everyone else has resigned, and I can’t make any decisions. The (state) Department of Education is going to destroy us.’
“He said, ‘If you’re interested in this, I’m in pretty good with Joy (Hofmeister). I can get this done.’ I said, ‘Well, I can’t make any decisions.’”
Epic Charter Schools, the operator of the state’s largest virtual school, came to the rescue of Panola, another small school district in dire straits in 2017, through a unique arrangement.
Panola converted itself into a charter school, thereby freeing itself from a host of certain state requirements, and outsourced its management to an Epic-related for-profit company in exchange for more than 10 percent of the district’s revenues from state, federal and local tax dollars.
A spokeswoman for State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said any arrangement to annex Swink into Panola, 110 miles to the north, would be “patently impossible” at this juncture.
“Just as Superintendent Hofmeister opposed the Panola school board partnering with Epic, she would oppose such a scenario now, even if it were possible,” said Steffie Corcoran, executive director of communications at the Oklahoma State Department of Education.
“The fact is the State Board will soon take action on our recommendation to close the school. We understand that this is a difficult time for the Swink community and its lone remaining board member.”
Emily Lang, a contract spokeswoman for Epic, confirmed that Harris had a brief conversation with the board member “about Swink and the work EPIC has done in Panola.”
“They did not discuss a formal arrangement but instead had a casual conversation. There are no plans for a partnership or for any future discussions on the matter,” Lang said.
Last week, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation revealed in public court documents that it is actively investigating allegations of embezzlement, obtaining money by false pretenses and racketeering at Epic. The Tulsa World also obtained public records that show the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Department of Education’s law enforcement arm have also been probing Epic Charter Schools’ student enrollment practices and finances.
Swink’s finances and operations have been under a microscope since late 2015, when its former treasurer was busted by auditors and then law enforcement authorities for an embezzlement scheme that resulted in her sentencing in federal court earlier this month.
Collins said the cold call he received from Harris came after June’s state Board of Education meeting, at which state education officials publicly revealed a recommendation to consolidate Swink with a neighboring school district, Valliant.
“A voluntary annexation vote was held in May. The school board voted to put it to the people, and the people said no by 70 percent,” Collins explained. “Swink is the best school in Choctaw County. They’re trying to force us into the worst school district in McCurtain County, which is Valliant.”
Collins, retired in 2012 after 16 years as Choctaw County sheriff and 43 total years in law enforcement. He joined the Swink school board earlier this year because of familial ties and a sense of duty to his community, but the situation quickly devolved.
“My mother started first grade there in 1925 and completed eighth grade there,” he said. “That school is very dear to the community. That is the total existence of our community.”
After the failure of the voluntary annexation vote, Collins said his two fellow board members simultaneously submitted their resignations in June. Without at least one other board member, Collins said his hands have been tied to remedy any of the issues state education officials have raised, including concerns about school bus transportation and liability insurance.
But, on the most important count, Collins thinks he’s got one piece of helpful information on his side — bank statements that reportedly show much more money on hand for operations than the $150,000 the state has claimed.
“We shared superintendents with Valliant for a year, and I think the superintendent hoodwinked them into thinking we had way less money in the bank,” Collins said. “They said we don’t have enough money to open school, but I’ve got bank statements from the end of June that show we’ve got almost $275,000 to open school, plus $193,000 in bond money.
“Some schools have to go get a line of credit just to start the school year. I just can’t imagine the state doesn’t have better things to do than come after Swink.”
He added: “Swink is the best school in Choctaw County — anyone would want to annex Swink. We’re going to do what we can tomorrow.”
Epic Charter Schools: A Tulsa World investigation