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Oklahoma State Department of Education accuses Epic of miscounting enrollment, other issues

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Whitney Bryen
/
Oklahoma Watch

State schools superintendent Joy Hofmeister said she’s going to recommend Epic Charter Schools be put on accreditation probation. Again.

Hofmeister and the State Department of Education made a similar request in November 2020, but it was ultimately rejected by Oklahoma’s State Board of Education. The board will have another opportunity at its July 28, 2022 meeting.

Oklahoma’s State Department of Education issued a 75-page report detailing a number of issues with the virtual charter behemoth. And this time, it has nothing to do with the school’s beleaguered founders.

Hofmeister said Epic miscounted attendance and improperly used state funds to give out bonuses to administrators, relying on an old algorithm to count attendance for virtual students.

“It is clear that serious challenges remain. For the sake of the thousands of Oklahoma families and students who depend on Epic, it is critical that things be made right,” Hofmeister said in a written statement.

The issues in the 75-page report — printed in a bound book and given to reporters Tuesday — include:

  • For the 2020-21 school year, nearly nine percent of all students enrolled in Epic (6,436 students) were absent more than half of the time they were enrolled. Almost 5 percent (3,399) were absent more than 75 percent of the time they were enrolled. And many of those students were promoted to the next grade.
  • Epic is accused of erroneously adding approximately 39,000 days of student enrollment and membership, which in financial terms amounts to approximately $780,000.
  • Administrative staff (superintendent, deputy superintendents and others) received bonuses totaling $8,598,184.50 in June 2021. These bonuses were not approved by Epic’s board.
  • Employees were improperly terminated through a Reduction in Force or layoff.
  • Epic has a culture and climate that includes intimidation and harassment by those in leadership and governance positions, and has become a hostile work environment for employees.

Epic superintendent Bart Banfield defended the school in a hastily organized press conference following Hofmeister’s Tuesday afternoon.

He and Board Chairman Paul Campbell of Community Strategies, the nonprofit overseeing Epic, said they were blindsided by the press conference and report’s release Tuesday.

They refuted much of what the state said, insisting that how Epic counted attendance was the product of an old algorithm purchased by the school’s founders before they were given the boot last May. That algorithm would count many students as present every 15 days even if they received no instruction.

As for the contents of this report, which outlines issues after that separation, Banfield said the school is still figuring out how to proceed.

“We found some areas that we would just agree to disagree on,” Banfield said. “And so what I can tell you is that we're going to review this page by page. It's a 75-page document, and we will make sure that we do everything we possibly can to make sure that we are strengthening internal controls.”

Banfield said school administrators are just as concerned as the state about many of the issues raised in their report — and they plan to continue investigating.

“Epic charter schools is in the midst of a transformational change, both in leadership and in culture,” Banfield said.

StateImpact Oklahoma is a partnership of Oklahoma’s public radio stations which relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online.

Robby Korth grew up in Ardmore, Oklahoma and Fayetteville, Arkansas, and graduated from the University of Nebraska with a journalism degree.
StateImpact Oklahoma reports on education, health, environment, and the intersection of government and everyday Oklahomans. It's a reporting project and collaboration of KGOU, KOSU, KWGS and KCCU, with broadcasts heard on NPR Member stations.
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