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State Senate passes new transparency reporting requirements for virtual charter schools; bill headed to Gov. Stitt next
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State Senate passes new transparency reporting requirements for virtual charter schools; bill headed to Gov. Stitt next

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Oklahoma state capitol (copy)

Oklahoma is one of only three states that allow smoking in bars. That won’t change any time soon. Tulsa World file

New restrictions on virtual charter schools sailed through the Oklahoma Senate on Wednesday, in a similar fashion to the state House of Representatives’ vote on the measure last month.

Since the bill passed the House 95-0 on March 13, the 41-0 vote by the Senate on Wednesday means House Bill 1395 by Rep. Sheila Dills, R-Tulsa, heads next to Gov. Kevin Stitt for enactment.

“House Bill 1395 is a bill that holds public virtual charter schools to the same reporting standards as all public schools,” Dills said. “The unanimous, bipartisan support in the House and Senate shows the Legislature is committed to promoting transparency and accountability with all educational entities who receive public funds.”

Dills previously told the Tulsa World she is not targeting any one school but thinks the public deserves an accounting for an estimated $18 million in state and federal funds flowing from virtual charter schools to for-profit management companies in the current fiscal year.

HB 1395 would require virtual charter schools that contract with education management companies to operate the school to report their financial transactions expended on behalf of the school — including salaries of superintendents, administrators, board members, managers and owners, Dills said.

The measure would also add conflict-of-interest restrictions on employees and annual training requirements for charter schools’ governing board members, just like at traditional public schools.

Previously asked about the kind of conflict of interest that HB 1395 seeks to outlaw, Dills said a superintendent or governing board member with any ownership stake in the management company employed by the school.

Epic Charter Schools, the operator of Oklahoma’s largest virtual charter school, was founded by two Oklahoma City men, Ben Harris and David Chaney, under a nonprofit corporation called Community Strategies.

But Harris and Chaney, Epic’s superintendent, are both owners of Epic Youth Services LLC, a separate company with which the school contracts for its operation. That contract indicates an annual cost of $125,000 for “development services” plus a 10 percent share of the school’s collected revenues as an “indirect cost allocation.”

To put that 10 percent into context, Epic Charter Schools has been allocated $112.9 million in state aid funding alone for fiscal year 2019.

Dills on Wednesday thanked HB 1395’s Senate author, Sen. Dewayne Pemberton, R-Muskogee.

In comments posted on the Oklahoma Senate Republicans Facebook page after Wednesday’s vote, Pemberton said he thought it was crucial that the state require greater transparency for public monies being expended by for-profit management companies.

“Right now, we have four virtual charter schools in the state that are for-profit, public charter schools. In other words, they have an EMO (education management organization), or basically a business company that manages those charter schools, and they gain a profit that may be between 8 and 15 percent,” Pemberton said. “This bill here would put them under the same statutes that the traditional public schools are under as far as finances, expenditures, (state school accounting) codes.”

Currently, there is only an accounting of lump sums of public dollars flowing to for-profit school management companies, and Pemberton said that is inadequate.

“They are public charter schools, so they are funded by taxpayer dollars,” he said. “We are trying to make sure they break that out so we know where the taxpayer dollars are being spent because our taxpayers want that — and we as a party want to make sure that we know where every taxpayer dollar is being spent.”

Epic Charter Schools: A Tulsa World investigation

Andrea Eger 

918-581-8470

andrea.eger@tulsaworld.com

Twitter: @AndreaEger

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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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