In an all-day meeting that ran into the evening hours, the State Board of Education opted Thursday not to downgrade Epic Charter School’s accreditation status in response to alleged deficiencies. Board officials noted other schools have been given time to address concerns before facing potential probation and said Epic should not be treated any differently.
“They need opportunity to respond to the deficiencies and see what comes out of the next 30 days,” said board member Bill Flanagan. “And if they don’t respond appropriately and make enough progress to satisfy what we think is the required course of action, then that’s the time for taking it.”
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister and her top attorney, Brad Clark, had indicated support for placing Epic Charter Schools, an online K-12 school, on probation.
Hofmeister continued to argue that Epic should have its accreditation reduced even if it was not placed on probation.
“This is a message from the board to take this seriously and that we expect to see change,” Hofmeister said. “That is the instrument. That is incredibly important. And there have been many, many, many opportunities to change, and it’s been ignored.”
However, while Hofmeister said Epic had been provided opportunities to address shortcomings, many of the issues raised in the board’s November meeting arose from a federal review that Epic was provided the same day as the board meeting, according to Epic officials. Other issues apparently arose from a meeting between Epic and Oklahoma State Department of Education officials less than a week prior.
Epic officials noted federal law gives them 30 days to address the findings of the federal report and said state officials should not penalize them preemptively. Epic officials also noted they had been given no opportunity to address many of the issues raised by department officials at the board meeting.
Doug Scott, chairman of Epic Charter Schools board of education, said Epic officials met with Hofmeister and OSDE General Counsel Brad Clark less than a week prior, on Friday, Nov. 6, and were provided a report of the agency’s concerns.
“Our board intends on taking action on those items regardless of what you do tonight,” Scott said. “We feel like—I feel like, personally—that there’s some issues in there that can be addressed right away. Some things we need to get some more information about. But we intend on taking action to address some issues regardless of what your vote is here tonight. My request is just that I believe that going straight to probation might be, in my opinion, inappropriate when I as a board member haven’t had an opportunity to sit down with my board and take action on those issues after learning about them. That’s my point.”
In his report to the board, Clark cited a range of alleged issues that mostly dealt with financial reporting and oversight at Epic.
However, board member Estela Hernandez noted the group’s practice has always been to provide schools a list of deficiencies and downgrade a school’s accreditation only if the school subsequently fails to address those concerns.
“That is something that we haven’t done in this process yet,” Hernandez said. “And so that’s why, before we end up really going down the path of talking on both sides of our mouths, I think we need to be consistent and make sure that what we have done for other schools we do for this one too, and that we give them the list and give them the time to correct that.”
In October, the state board voted to require Epic Charter Schools to repay $11.2 million to the state, based on a state audit’s claim that the school had exceeded state caps on administrative expenses. However, that order allowed the school to respond to the audit within 60 days of receiving the audit work papers.
As of Nov. 12, Epic officials said they still had not received all those documents from the state auditor and the clock has yet to start ticking on that 60-day deadline. Nonetheless, officials with the school discussed with board members several steps since taken to address the audit’s broader findings.
Board member Jennifer Monies said that process should be allowed to move ahead before imposing additional penalties when Epic officials have not had a chance to address perceived problems.
“We took action last month,” Monies said. “It’s not like we haven’t said anything.”
She noted that spending roughly three hours discussing Epic’s alleged deficiencies during the meetings was, by itself, a sign of how serious the board took the issue and constituted a warning to Epic.
“I think it’s very clear that we expect this to be taken seriously,” Monies said.