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State probation: Epic officials believe many deficiencies solved by recent school consolidation

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Epic Charter School’s governing board meets Wednesday in Oklahoma City.

Epic Charter School’s first response to being placed on probation by the state will be that its recent consolidation from two schools into a single, unified system may have solved the vast majority of its deficiencies.

The school’s governing board on Wednesday approved a proposed corrective action plan that Epic will submit to the Oklahoma State Department of Education.

In late July, Epic was one of nine districts to be placed on probation by the State Board of Education. Probation is the final step before a district could lose state accreditation and be forced to close.

Epic, one of the state’s largest public schools, currently enrolls about 30,000 students.

Its co-founders, David Chaney and Ben Harris, and former Chief Financial Officer Josh Brock, were cut out in May 2021. Then in June of this year, the trio was arrested and charged in Oklahoma County District Court with bilking Epic out of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars by enrolling ghost students, falsifying invoices and fraudulently using credit cards paid for with school funds to cover personal and out-of-state charter school expenses and even political contributions.

“For the last 18 months, Epic Charter School has been in the midst of a transformational change in both leadership and in culture,” said Ginger Casper, chair of Epic’s governing board. “Through this work, many of the issues outlined by the Oklahoma State Department of Education are already addressed and completed. For the remaining items, Epic Charter School respectfully submits this plan with meaningful, measurable, accountable and sustainable actions to achieve full compliance.

“We are committed to working alongside our partners at the OSDE to provide updates on our progress and receive guidance as the school year progresses.”

After a seven-month investigation, state education officials claimed this summer that Epic administrators gave themselves $8.6 million in “improper” bonus payments in June 2021; that the school was not in compliance with federal law governing the education of students with special needs; and that its school governing board had committed possible “willful violations” of the Open Meeting Act and certain board members had “grossly exceeded their roles” by interfering with administrators, directing employees outside board meetings and engaging in transactions for the school district without prior board authorization.

Brandon Webb, executive director of legal services at Epic, told the school board Wednesday night that of the nine areas identified as in need of remediation by the state, Epic had already addressed seven. He estimated that it might be only a couple of more months until school administrators could completely address the remaining two to three areas of need.

According to the proposed corrective action plan, bonuses for administrators were discontinued as of June 30, 2021, which was the final day of the last fiscal year Chaney, Harris and Brock oversaw at Epic.

A host of deficiencies related to insurance and other benefits and how Epic had been counting and reporting its many employees shared by the formerly separate Epic One-on-One statewide virtual charter school and Epic Blended Learning Centers all were some variation on this response: “Effective July 1, 2022, all employees are only reported under Epic Charter School, and no duplicative or split reporting will occur.”

Ahead of the start of 2022-23, Epic One-on-One, sponsored by the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, and Epic Blended, sponsored by Rose State College, were consolidated into a single school system under the sponsorship of the the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board.

Further, Epic’s response to the state concerning the two governing board issues is that Epic will be providing training about Oklahoma’s Open Meetings Act to all board members and conducting a complete review of its governance policies this winter.

“Additionally, the district is working with the Oklahoma State School Boards Association to help develop policies. Epic is working to put policies and safeguards in place to assuage past concerns,” the document states.

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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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