Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

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Members of the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board voted Tuesday to begin a months-long administrative process that could potentially result in termination of the board’s contract with Community Strategies, Inc., the governing board for Epic One-on-One Charter School. The administrative process was launched in response to a critical state audit.

Officials stressed that the vote only begins the review process and does not automatically mean Epic’s charter will be revoked.

“Today, I am asking you as the Virtual Charter School Board to review these facts and determine that if these facts were proven true at a hearing, would they constitute violation of the contract?” said Assistant Attorney General Marie Schuble, who serves as the board’s legal counsel. “You are not voting today on whether or not you think these facts are true.”

“I know there has been some concern that today we would be terminating the contract,” said John D. Harrington, chairman of the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board. “The only issue before us today is whether or not we would proceed into a process by which that is one potential outcome.”

He added that the administrative process will allow issues to be “aired out and reviewed by both sides.” At the administrative hearing, Schuble said Epic “can present witnesses, evidence, be represented by an attorney, and there’s a chance for them to be able to tell their side of the story.”

The motion to begin the administrative process passed on a 3-1 vote. Board members Harrington, Robert Franklin, and Barry Beauchamp voted in favor of launching the review, while Phyllis Shepherd voted in opposition. Board member Mathew Hamrick did not attend the meeting.

Many parents view the attacks on Epic as an effort to force families to return children to schools that failed them.

Schuble provided board members with a draft notice to terminate Epic’s contract based on failure to meet standards of fiscal management and comply with related laws, based on allegations contained in the state audit.

Many of the alleged violations of the school’s contract with the statewide board revolve around failure to use Epic’s appropriated funds solely for the benefit of the school and its students. The issues raised by Schuble, which were based on the state audit, included claims that Epic Charter Schools commingled funds from Epic One-on-One and Epic Blended, which are considered two separate legal entities with two separate charters and two separate sponsors. Schuble also said the audit indicates Epic used funds to support a California offshoot in violation of its contract, and supported other public-school districts, including Panola and Pawhuska, with Epic funds.

Schuble said the administrative process is required to be set “at least 90 days out” by law and may be scheduled at an even later date. She said the board may also negotiate a settlement with Epic.

“In the meantime, there’s also time for negotiation,” Schuble said. “Just because we enter this process does not mean that termination is the only option.”

Should the contract be terminated, and no replacement charter sponsor comes forward, it could ultimately lead to the closure of Epic Charter Schools, the state’s largest school district, which currently provides online education to roughly 61,000 students.

The board’s vote occurred after parents voiced their concerns, as did a teacher at Epic and the school’s leader.

Epic Superintendent Bart Banfield urged the board to allow the district time to receive the work papers associated with the state audit and develop their response before making any decision regarding Epic’s charter.

“I’m not asking you today to ignore a state audit,” Banfield said. “I’m asking you to take the audit under advisement and allow Epic an opportunity within 60 days of our organization receiving the work papers from SAI (state auditor and inspector) to prove that we are fully compliant with the terms of our contract and with the law. There’s simply no way for us to accurately dispute work papers we have not seen and I assume you have not seen as of today’s meeting.”

Robert Ruiz, whose 17-year-old son is a student in Epic, urged the board to proceed cautiously, noting that “hasty decisions” regarding Epic’s charter could “throw into chaos thousands of families’ lives.”

“I work with parents all over the state, and obviously this is a time when parents—if they’re forced to be home with their students—really want to have a quality virtual education, and Epic has provided that now to over 30,000 new students,” Ruiz said. “Epic is playing a role in this state that is so important. It’s so important to families.”

Denise Barnett, who has a child in Epic, said that when traditional schools closed their doors last spring due to COVID-19, “they pretty much just gave us the word that we’re in it, sink or swim, you figure it out or you don’t.”

When her son transitioned to Epic his grades improved significantly, Barnett said. Now, she said many parents view the attacks on Epic as an effort to force families like hers to return children to schools that failed them.

“A lot of the parents that are inside Epic think that brick-and-mortar schools are mad because they’ve had too many kids pulled from them and they’re losing too much money and they’re trying to get Epic shut down,” Barnett said. “There are a lot of parents that feel that way. If you pull the charter on Epic, what are we going to do with our kids?”

Drew Reese, an Epic teacher, noted that all students in Epic are there as the result of proactive choices by parents.

“I love our school system and I believe in the model,” Reese said. “Our 61,165 students and their families and their parents also believe in our model. They believe in our model so much that they chose our school. We didn’t draw a geographical boundary around them and say, ‘You have to come here.’ They chose to come here. This is the best model that they’ve chosen for their student.”

He said there is no turning back the clock.

“I’m an educator, and this is a school that educates kids,” Reese said. “Virtual education is not going away. It’s here. It’s like saying Amazon is going to go away.”

In urging the board to begin the review process, Schuble noted the many families who could be affected by any action on Epic’s charter.

“We heard about the many students and many teachers that are tied to Epic today, and those individuals are why this board is here and why this board takes their contract terms seriously,” Schuble said. “We have to protect online education. We have to protect strong choices and protect the schools that are operating within the terms of their contract, and make sure that everyone is being completely transparent.”

NOTE: This story has been updated since publication to correct information regarding board member Mathew Hamrick.

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

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