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State Department of Ed, school sponsors investigating new Epic allegations
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State Department of Ed, school sponsors investigating new Epic allegations

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Epic responds to new allegations of wrongdoing

Now-former Epic Charter Schools board Vice Chair Kathren Stehno and Chair Paul Campbell are shown in this screenshot from a livestream of Epic’s Nov. 17 board meeting.

Allegations made in the resignation letter of an Epic Charter Schools governing board member are now under investigation by state education officials as well as the authorizer of Epic’s largest charter school.

Epic school board member Kathren Stehno resigned last week after one year of service, saying she believed she had been given false, partial or misleading information in recent months to influence her decision-making as a board member by Paul Campbell, Epic’s board chairman, and Superintendent Bart Banfield.

Stehno received evidence that Epic violated state law and school policy in the way it withdrew “a high percentage” of its students for truancy and that Epic school leaders recently handed out “extremely large and unapproved bonuses that exceeded employee contracts without board approval.”

The Oklahoma State Department of Education sent Epic notice on Tuesday that it will be investigating all of Stehno’s allegations and asked for the superintendent’s cooperation and preservation of all pertinent evidence.

In response to a question from the Tulsa World, State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said:

“For a school district that has faced years of federal and state criminal investigations, a 19-month state audit that resulted in a demand to repay more than $11 million, (the Oklahoma State Department of Education) identifying 16 areas of non-compliance and recommending probation for the district, and a separate $10 million withholding by our department because of improper administrative costs to now have additional allegations of fraud, improper board governance and a hostile work environment is unacceptable and must not be tolerated.

“We are on the side of students and taxpayers, and that’s why OSDE immediately began its investigation into these very serious allegations.”

Robert Franklin, an associate superintendent at Tulsa Technology Center who serves as chairman of Oklahoma’s Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, told the Tulsa World that the authorizing entity of Epic One-on-One has also already begun an inquiry into Stehno’s claims, which she shared with the state board.

“We are doing our due diligence to analyze what has been written and brought to us and then to investigate the concerns that have been raised and to see what issues might present stumbling blocks for us to complete the agreement and the compliance with that,” Franklin said.

Epic has been in ongoing negotiations for months with the virtual charter school board over final terms of a consent agreement that halted contract termination proceedings against Epic over its handling of public funds in previous years and alleged contract violations revealed in October 2020 forensic audit findings by Oklahoma’s State Auditor and Inspector’s Office.

December’s meeting of the virtual charter school board, originally set for next week, had already been canceled before the allegations came to light, so it likely will be January before the matter could be addressed publicly by that body.

In mid-November, Epic announced that it was conducting a “reduction in force” after losing 60% of the new students driven there during the COVID-19 pandemic. Stehno’s resignation letter states that Epic has no policy in place for conducting a RIF and that the board received no advance notice or budget forecast of “dire budget conditions” necessitating such an action.

She noted that among the employees terminated on Nov. 12 were Epic’s entire internal auditing team, which she said had raised red flags about the unauthorized bonuses to Campbell, Banfield and a deputy superintendent in charge of human relations.

“Further, for this RIF to have begun less than one week from our next regular Board meeting and for Board members to learn about it in the news is highly suspect,” Stehno wrote.

“When I disagreed with the RIF process at the board meeting, I was met with unkind and unprofessional behavior by the Chair (Campbell) and the Superintendent (Banfield) for raising questions any school board member in the state of Oklahoma would have asked in the same situation.”

Rose State College, the sponsor of Epic’s other charter school, Epic Blended Learning Centers, issued a statement to the Tulsa World on Tuesday evening, saying: “Rose State College is aware of the recent allegations and immediately took action to look into the concerns raised by Dr. Stehno upon receiving the notice.”

Chelsi LeBarre, Epic’s new contract spokeswoman, said school officials were unavailable for comment on Tuesday.

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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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