Enrollment irregularities, unapproved bonuses: the latest Epic Charter investigation
The State Superintendent is recommending Epic Charter Schools be placed on probation for violating state law following an investigation into the state’s largest online school.
The latest probe found serious problems, including student attendance patterns that skirted state law; large, unapproved bonuses for staff; and violations of laws on competitive bidding requirements and the Open Meetings Act.
Issues occurred repeatedly and after the Epic Charter Schools board cut ties with its founders, David Chaney and Ben Harris, and their for-profit company, Epic Youth Services.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister announced the department’s findings Tuesday. She said she’ll recommend the state Board of Education adjust Epic’s accreditation status to probation at its July meeting. The designation would allow the school to remain operating but with more scrutiny and oversight from the state. Epic is an online charter school with just over 38,000 students enrolled last year.
The state board may also consider sanctioning Epic’s superintendent, Bart Banfield, according to the report. Banfield approved a bonus payment for himself and his wife in 2021;
Banfield received $67,500 on top of his salary and his wife got an extra $34,167.
Administrators received bonus payments totaling $8.5 million that year. Bonuses weren’t authorized by the school board and in some cases, exceeded the amount in their employment contract.
Epic staff told investigators they thought the superintendent had the authority to approve bonuses.
Banfield, in a written statement, said the school has made some policy and procedure mistakes as it transitioned away from the former management. “We have a new board of education and new executive leadership team committed to uncovering all and any issues and securing
compliance with the State (Department) of Education,” he wrote. “Fortunately, this work has already begun.”
Hofmeister said school leaders are cooperating with the state and “there is enthusiasm to do good things.” But department staff also noted that some of the findings have been long-standing issues despite guidance from the state.
According to the report:
• Regulators found a troubling pattern in the attendance records: nearly 5,000 students were reported to be absent for 14 days, then present for 1 day, then absent again for 14 days. The pattern was due to an algorithm, created by an outside company and implemented after a change in state law in 2020 requiring virtual students who don’t complete an instructional activity (such as an online assignment or a meeting with a teacher) for 15 days to be withdrawn from the school. “No one at the district could explain how a specific student’s record of completed instructional activities would be converted into the student’s attendance records after being run through the algorithm – it is a ‘black box,’” investigators wrote.
• More than 4,500 Epic students were “absent” on their first day enrolled, though state law requires virtual students’ enrollment to start on the first day they complete an instructional activity. Regulators found more than 39,000 days that shouldn’t have counted for state funding, totalling about $780,000.
• Student absences skyrocketed in 2020-21 compared to the year before, with more than 640,000 reported — a 3,444% increase. Nine percent of students missed half of the school year and 5% were absent 75% of the time.
• Board members failed to adhere to state laws as well as their own policies. They violated the Open Meetings Act as recently as last month when they took a meeting agenda off their website and reposted a different version after the deadline requiring 24-hour advance notice.
• Board members have “grossly exceeded their roles,” according to the report, by interfering with school administration and making business decisions and transactions outside of board meetings. And the board has little experience or training overseeing school finances, operations, ethics and laws.
The investigation stems from the resignation of former board chair Kathren Stehno in December. In her resignation letter, she asked the Education Department to investigate Epic and its board chairman, Paul Campbell, for a number of reasons, including harassment and intimidation of female employees. While the department was unable to substantiate her allegations of sex-based discrimination or harassment, the report notes that senior staff members have described encounters with Campbell that “if true, would constitute inappropriate and unprofessional behavior.”
Stehno on Tuesday said she was relieved to see the Education Department take her complaints seriously and she hopes those who broke the law will be held responsible. Stehno, an assistant professor at Southwestern Christian University and a Republican candidate for state House of Representatives, said “I still believe in the school. I still want them to succeed.”
Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public-policy issues facing the state.