Gov. Kevin Stitt on Friday removed the president of the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board who recently led the initiation of termination proceedings against Epic Charter Schools and challenged two other board members about potential conflicts of interest with Epic.
John Harrington was notified Friday morning by Stitt’s newly appointed secretary of education that his service on the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board was over effective immediately.
Stitt’s office told the Tulsa World on Friday evening that the governor has appointed the former president of a private Christian school in Edmond in Harrington’s place.
Harrington said that only two days earlier, he had notified Stitt’s office, as well as the office of House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, of his intent to call a special meeting Nov. 18 so the board could consider voting to force members Mathew Hamrick and Phyllis Shepherd to recuse themselves from any matters related to Epic.
He provided copies of his emails to Stitt’s and McCall’s offices to the Tulsa World.
“This fact is disturbingly ironic given that two days later I am now the one no longer on the Board or voting on Epic-related matters. Whether by design, or mere coincidence, I do not believe this will help restore the public’s confidence in this matter,” Harrington said in a written statement.
“I am concerned with the direction that we are headed. It is widely known that there are concerns about the relationship between Epic and two of the virtual charter board members. However, despite these concerns, these individuals remain on the Board.”
Harrington said Stitt should now call on McCall and Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat to follow his lead and replace their respective appointees, Shepherd and Hamrick.
“Access to quality online education has never been more important for our students, and our state has an obligation to protect this choice,” he said. “The public should have confidence in the schools that are available to them and in the agencies that oversee them.
“As chair of the SVCSB, I pledged to serve our state’s online charter schools fairly and without bias. I believe that I did, and I stand by my actions with a clear conscience.”
In late October, Assistant Attorney General Marie Schuble recommended that the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board enter into termination proceedings against Epic, the operator of Oklahoma’s largest online public school, called Epic One-on-One, based on the state’s new investigative audit findings that Epic’s operators might have violated fiscal management standards in their contract and various state laws, as well as for “good cause.”
The board voted 3-1 in favor, with Shepherd casting the lone “no” vote and Hamrick absent from the meeting.
As first reported in the Tulsa World, Shepherd is a relative of one of Epic’s two co-founders, who reportedly have become millionaires through their deal to manage the school, and Hamrick accepted campaign donations from one of the Epic co-founders in Hamrick’s failed bid for a state Senate seat.
In response to the Tulsa World’s reporting about Shepherd’s family tie, Speaker McCall sent Shepherd a letter and provided a copy to the Tulsa World that stated: “As an appointee to the House, my expectation is that if it is found that a conflict does exist for you to vote on matters related to Epic, that you would abstain from all future votes that are or could be encompassed by that conflict.”
In September, Harrington led Hamrick’s censure and removal from the board’s newly formed audit committee, accusing Hamrick of intentionally avoiding public votes by the board in 2019 and 2020 on matters seeking to unmask Epic’s use of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to date budgeted for student learning that Epic is keeping private.
In Harrington’s place, Stitt has appointed Brandon Tatum, former president of Oklahoma Christian Academy and now founder and CEO of CONNECTedu and chair of the National Christian School Association Board of Trustees.
Tatum previously sat on the Oklahoma Innovation in Education subcommittee for Stitt.
“We don’t think it’s a major shakeup,” said Oklahoma Secretary of Education Ryan Walters. “The governor called for the audit of Epic. We want to make sure taxpayer dollars are accounted for.”
Asked about whether Stitt is concerned about the potential conflicts of interest on the board, Walters responded: “We’re not going to comment on that. Those are appointments that are out of our control. We have one appointee to the board.”
Asked whether Stitt’s office had spoken to Tatum about Epic before his appointment, Walters said: “We just made sure there were no ties there, and we wanted to make sure everything is transparent and there’s accountability there and everything is carried out in a fair manner.”