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Epic Charter Schools calls state auditor's report on accounting practices 'fiction'

Epic Charter Schools calls state auditor's report on accounting practices 'fiction'

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A day after the announcement of findings in a state auditor’s investigation of Epic Charter Schools, officials with Epic fired back, providing responses and documentation that they say “sets the record straight.”

“This isn’t the first time we’ve been subjected to political scrutiny, nor were the allegations new,” Shelly Hickman, Epic assistant superintendent, said.

“The findings were presented with over-the-top sensationalism guaranteed to stir up defenders of the education status quo because we are growing, and they are struggling.”

The audit report, she added, shows “a clear, personal anti-public school choice agenda.”

The first of what is expected to be a two-part report was released Thursday afternoon by State Auditor Cindy Byrd, following a yearlong investigation into the virtual charter school’s accounting practices.

Among its findings, the audit reported examples of improper fund transfers, chronic misreporting of costs and lax oversight and accountability.

Epic officials, who in an initial response Thursday accused critics of “political theatrics” and a “seemingly endless fishing expedition,” zeroed in Friday on the audit report, addressing each of seven allegations made.

At particular issue is the auditor’s claim that Epic owes $8.9 million to the state for incorrectly categorizing administration costs.

“The process is overseen and approved each and every time by the state Department of Education,” Hickman said. “If at any point they thought we were doing it wrong, they could’ve raised objections — and, in fact, at times they did, and costs were categorized according to their feedback.

“For an unrelated state agency to come in years after the fact and claim costs were categorized incorrectly shows a complete lack of understanding of the process.”

Hickman also criticized the report’s describing Epic’s method of counting students as a “mystery.”

“We were floored by that,” she said. “It isn’t a mystery. Our student count is calculated the same way all schools’ student counts are calculated and then approved by the state Department of Education.”

Hickman went on to question the qualifications of a Byrd staff member, Salesha Wilken, who was heavily involved in the audit proceedings.

A former reporter, “she isn’t an auditor at all,” Hickman said. “She’s a storyteller by trade, and we saw that on full display in this audit report, which weaves quite a tale. That tale is fiction.”

Hickman emphasized again that the report, while calling for changes to the law, never says that laws have been broken.

“The auditor said yesterday that she’s seen a lot of fraud, but she stopped short of accusing Epic of fraud,” Hickman said. “She chose those words carefully, because she knows there’s no fraud here.”

Responding Friday to Epic’s criticism of the investigation, Byrd said: “Epic’s response is a smokescreen to, once again, distract taxpayers by changing the subject. This audit is not an assessment of the quality of their services, it’s an investigation into their finances. The facts provided in the audit speak for themselves.”

“As I’ve said repeatedly,” she added, “I am not against school choice. I support every child’s opportunity to get the best education possible. However, I cannot support the abuse of taxpayer dollars.”

Gov. Kevin Stitt, who called for the audit of Epic last year, and state education leaders agreed Thursday that the findings were concerning.

Epic also remains under investigation by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation. OSBI said Thursday it would use the audit, and that it should be helpful in what is a “complicated and intricate investigation.”

Read Epic’s full response to the state auditor report here: epiccharterschools.org/wp-content/uploads/Response-to-Audit-.pdf


Video: State auditor releases investigation of Epic Charter Schools.


Epic Charter Schools: A Tulsa World investigation

Tim Stanley

918-581-8385

tim.stanley@tulsaworld.com

Twitter: @timstanleyTW

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