School finance chiefs from many of the biggest districts in the state are calling on the governor, attorney general and state superintendent to intervene ahead of a looming financial windfall for Epic Charter Schools.
In a letter sent this week, chief financial officers from 14 school districts called on state leaders to see to it that Epic’s upcoming midyear adjustment in state funding be “stayed or modified” until Epic’s student “enrollment numbers and other business practices are verified to be lawful and compliant.”
It was signed by district officials from Tulsa, Ardmore, Bartlesville, Broken Arrow, Enid, Lawton, Moore, Muskogee, Mustang, Norman, Putnam City, Tahlequah, Union and Yukon.
“We simply cannot stand by and watch as our districts struggle with the inevitability that awaits all the districts adversely impacted by the predatory practices of this organization,” states a copy of the email sent to State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, which the Tulsa World obtained.
A spokesman for Hofmeister said the letter “deserves serious consideration.”
A portion of state aid for public schools is reserved each year so the Oklahoma State Department of Education can make adjustments midyear based on a variety of factors, including schools’ increases or decreases in student enrollment during the first nine weeks of the school year and changes in local tax revenues.
That means some districts typically see their funding docked when all of those factors are considered. But financial fallout is looming for many school districts across the state because of parents looking to forgo any in-school instruction for 2020-21 amid the pandemic.
That sent student enrollment in Oklahoma’s statewide online public schools suddenly sky high, most especially at Epic.
“Increasing funding to a for-profit business while many traditional public schools and tax payers in Oklahoma will be undergoing significant financial losses seems illogical, irresponsible, and unfair to both the children of the State of Oklahoma and taxpayers,” reads the the letter addressed to Hofmeister, as well as Gov. Kevin Stitt and Attorney General Mike Hunter. “Please consider taking swift and appropriate actions to stop the loss of State Funds that are badly needed by so many but exploited by so few. While we intend no harm to the students or teachers of Epic virtual charter schools that financial actions may cause, providing increased funding to the organization does not seem like a viable solution either.”
A host of concerns and deficiencies have recently been identified about Epic’s business practices by the Oklahoma State Department of Education, the State Auditor and Inspector’s Office and the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board.
Epic Charter Schools operates the largest statewide virtual charter school, called Epic One-on-One, as well as “blended learning” centers in Tulsa and Oklahoma counties.
Epic’s Assistant Superintendent of Communications Shelly Hickman said the school was not aware of the letter from other district’s CFOs until contacted about it by the Tulsa World.
“We do know we are in a deadly pandemic and we all need to be working together,” said Hickman. “The 58,000 students we are educating are very real people who are entitled like any Oklahoma public school student to a free and appropriate education. Tens of thousands of Oklahoma families understand our school’s learning model is tailor made for a difficult time like our state and nation now face. We should be supporting their choices rather than targeting the opportunities being provided to them right now.”
The state Board of Education has already demanded back from Epic $11.2 million in taxpayer funding for chronically excessive administrative overhead costs and inaccurate cost accounting.
And in November, that state board was advised of new deficiencies reportedly discovered in reviews of Epic’s federally funded programs for special education and homeless students and English learners.
“In a budget year as challenging as this one, the concerns expressed in the letter deserve serious consideration,” said Phil Bacharach, chief of staff to State Superintendent Hofmeister, when asked about the school finance officers’ letter. “We are taking the letter under advisement, as well as other information we are receiving in light of Epic’s response to the department’s demand letter of Nov. 16, before we determine the next appropriate action.”