Following Thursday’s press conference from State Auditor Cindy Byrd regarding Epic Charter Schools, the governor, the state superintendent, Democrat state leaders and Epic’s assistant superintendent have all responded to part one of the audit.
According to a report from the State Auditor & Inspector’s Office on Thursday, Epic owes Oklahoma $8.9 million.
“What we found was very disappointing,” State Auditor and Inspector Cindy Byrd said. “I have seen a lot of fraud in my 22 years, and this situation deeply concerns me.”
In a statement, Epic’s Assistant Superintendent, Shelly Hickman, said the auditor’s report does not assert that laws have been broken.
Here is the full statement from Hickman:
We haven’t had a chance to read this 120-page report. What we witnessed today was political theatrics, but the information was not new and has been in the public realm for many years. What we did witness was Auditor Byrd attacking parents’ rights to choose the public school they think is best for them, and disparaging the work we are doing to provide high quality, remote learning opportunities for over 61,000 students and parents.
We take issue with the auditor’s assertion that we were not helpful or cooperative in this process. Our school’s staff has spent thousands of hours responding to a seemingly endless fishing expedition. We gave them access to our computer system, and to date we have paid $243,000 for the audit.
What the auditor seems to object to is the idea that our school model provides an alternative to traditional public schools. We have grown from only 1700 kids to more than 61,000 students over our 10-year history. Does our Learning Fund help us attract and retain students? Of course it does because it empowers parents and individualizes their children’s education.
We also explained, many times, the method we use to calculate student enrollment. In fact, we provided the auditor’s office with a chart, outlining the method and the resulting calculations. Those calculations are in line with other school districts. They were also accepted, year after year, by the State Department of Education. If the State Auditor understood how those calculations are made and reported, she would understand why we don’t owe $8.9 million.
We will be providing a point by point response within 24 hours, but once you cut through the theatrics of today’s announcement, the conclusion of the report calls for changes to the law; it does not assert that laws have been broken. Policy makers should be cautious about believing politicians over parents.
Governor Kevin Stitt in a statement said he continues to look for transparency.
“While we are still reviewing the entire contents of the audit, the initial findings are concerning. Our state has recently invested in public education at the highest levels in our state’s history, and Oklahomans deserve accountability and transparency on how their hard-earned tax dollars are being spent.
I am grateful for Auditor Byrd’s extensive work on this report and agree that her findings are not representative of all public charter schools or alternative forms of education. We know parents want educational options, especially in light of how education has shifted during the COVID-19 pandemic. We expect every Oklahoma student to have access to high quality options that are transparent about their performance and accountable to taxpayers. I am committed to working with Superintendent Hofmeister and the Legislature to ensure our public education funding provides the maximum benefit for our students and teachers.”
State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said the findings are “deeply disturbing.”
“In an education environment where every dollar is being stretched to the limit, these findings are deeply disturbing. It is one thing for a public school to utilize the services of a private vendor, which is common practice, but when that private vendor operates the school in question and can manipulate that structure to obfuscate or mislead, there is something systematically wrong. Oklahomans deserve better.
As the coronavirus pandemic has made clear, there is no question that virtual instruction and innovative models are important options for many students and families. These changes are rapidly transforming the education landscape and it is critical that laws, policies and infrastructure keep pace to ensure transparency and accountability. We will closely examine the most appropriate steps moving forward in consultation with the State Auditor and other state officials.”
“As we have said from the beginning, our concern has never been about our teachers that work for Epic,” said State Rep. Melissa Provenzano, D-Tulsa. “Our concerns have always been upstream. Were Oklahoma tax dollars being spent on our students? Today it appears we found out they were not.”
State Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, D-Norman added the following.
“As somebody who believes in accountability and transparency, hearing that it was such a struggle to get information for this audit from Epic Youth Services is disheartening. While I believe there is a place in our state for virtual charter schools, I believe it is our place to ensure that the taxpayer knows exactly how and on what their money is spent.”
State Rep. John Waldron, D-Tulsa said, “It is completely inappropriate to allow $125 million meant for Oklahoma public school students to be managed outside the purview of Oklahoma taxpayers. We owe our citizens a thorough accounting just as we owe all our public school students a quality education.”
Finally, State Rep. Trish Ranson, D-Stillwater said, “Today we learned that one person is responsible for managing funds on both the public and private side of the business. This lack of accountability and oversight is especially alarming as Epic has now grown to the state’s largest school district.”
The Epic audit has been turned over to Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter’s office, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation and the Oklahoma Tax Commission.