Leadership in the Oklahoma House of Representatives is moving forward with legislation based on the extraordinary and urgent call to action by the multicounty grand jury probing the Epic Charter Schools saga.
House Bill 2966 is scheduled to be introduced on the floor and voted on by the House of Representatives on Monday.
But the matter is down to the wire, as both House and Senate approval would be needed for passage before the Legislature adjourns by the end of next week.
The Tulsa lawmaker tapped only a few weeks ago with overseeing the bill’s language, which became public late Friday, said additional legislative action would still be necessary.
“I would be seriously remiss if I were to imply that this bill completes our legislative duties on behalf of our constituents with regards to this issue. This is a very positive next step, but there is still work to be done,” said Rep. Sheila Dills, R-Tulsa.
Oklahoma’s multicounty grand jury became involved in October in investigating Epic Charter Schools after the state auditor and inspector issued a scathing report about the accounting practices of the operators of the state’s largest school system and lack of oversight by their hand-picked governing board members.
In a rare move, the grand jury issued an interim report stating that while its criminal inquiry is still ongoing, it has already seen evidence that new safeguards and greater transparency requirements should be instituted by the Legislature before even more taxpayer dollars are allocated to Epic beginning with the new fiscal year on July 1.
Officially entitled the Oklahoma Education Services Policy Act of 2021, House Bill 2966 was filed as a shell bill by Oklahoma Speaker of the House Charles McCall. Shell bills provide a vehicle for expediting legislation.
John Estus, spokesman for McCall, referred the Tulsa World’s request for comment to Dills because she was responsible for the bill’s language.
Dills has been the architect of two previously enacted pieces of legislation to try to crack down on the financial practices of charter schools.
HB 2966 would specifically require full disclosure of spending records for charters that contract with outside educational management organizations, or EMOs, as Epic does.
“The most important part of this bill is the ability of a charter school board, sponsor or the State Department of Education to request financial documents from the EMO if they believe there are discrepancies and the EMO is not following their contract or the law. The EMO must comply,” Dills said.
The grand jury report blasted Epic’s own governing board for “failure in fiduciary duty” to its students and in accounting to the state of Oklahoma for many years before the state’s forensic audit exposed the issues.
It detailed the shifting of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars for school expenses into the private bank accounts of Epic Youth Services, the for-profit school management company that has reportedly made millionaires of Epic co-founders David Chaney and Ben Harris, who themselves hand-picked school governing board members.
“As designed this system is ripe for fraud,” the grand jury stated in its interim report.
EYS is still fighting in court against the Oklahoma State Auditor and Inspector’s efforts to review $79.3 million in Epic Charter Schools’ spending on student learning for fiscal years 2015-2020 that were unaccounted for during the state’s year-long forensic audit, requested by Gov. Kevin Stitt.
The funds were shifted over in lump sums to the bank accounts of Epic’s private school management company — in addition to the $45.9 million in fees the company was paid for its management contracts.
Dills expressed gratitude to the House speaker for “introducing a vehicle for my work” and to the House education committee chairs for supporting the late-session legislation. But she said one of her greatest legislative reform goals raised by the Epic saga would be left unfinished, even if HB 2966 is ultimately adopted and signed into law.
“One of the many commonalities between the reports from the state auditor and multicounty grand jury is the need for a charter school who contracts with a management company to engage in competitive bidding,” Dills said. “Taxpayers deserve to know that the goods and services they paid for are at fair market value and without competitive bidding that is impossible.”
She is planning an interim study ahead of future legislation to that end.