New south Tulsa charter school’s sponsor received black eye for Epic oversight

New south Tulsa charter school’s sponsor received black eye for Epic oversight

Tulsa Classical Academy’s website tells parents “Rose State College is the high-quality charter school sponsor for Tulsa Classical Academy.”

But not so long ago, that wasn’t how Oklahoma’s elected state auditor characterized Rose State in a 2020 investigative audit report on Epic Charter Schools.

Auditors wrote that Rose State, which collected millions in Oklahoma taxpayer dollars as the sponsor of Epic Blended Learning Centers between 2017 and 2022, provided inadequate oversight and requested no follow-up review or documentation of Epic’s finances.

“Charter school sponsors who default to others for accountability or accept whatever information charter schools provide at face value cannot achieve effective oversight,” the October 2020 investigative audit report stated. “There has to be greater financial oversight, be it statutorily mandated or through the willingness of the sponsor to ask the hard questions.”

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Epic Blended Learning Centers have since been combined with Epic’s other educational offerings under the sponsorship of the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board.

In June, Epic co-founders David Chaney and Ben Harris and their longtime chief financial officer, Josh Brock, were arrested and charged in Oklahoma County District Court with a host of criminal charges under the state’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, commonly referred to as RICO.

Oklahoma State Auditor and Inspector Cindy Byrd has called the case the “largest abuse of taxpayer funds in the history of this state.”

Nathan Phelps, founder and current governing board chair for Tulsa Classical Academy, said, “Our goal has been to do everything differently than Epic.”

For starters, that means TCA will have no charter management organization earning a profit from the school’s operations.

And TCA’s school leaders won’t be waiting for any invitations for accountability. They’re regularly seeking out Rose State officials to keep them apprised of the new charter school’s progress.

“I think the school should work in partnership with the authorizer,” Phelps said. “It behooves the school to proactively communicate with the authorizer and make sure they know what’s going on in the school.”

The Tulsa World had to make multiple inquiries to obtain TCA’s 300-page sponsorship application and contract with Rose State College because the Midwest City-based community college has outsourced the handling of public records requests to a contract public relations firm.

A representative of that firm initially told the Tulsa World that an arbitrary 30 days would be sufficient response time, but the Oklahoma Open Records Act requires “prompt, reasonable” access to such public records, which the attorney general’s office defines as “only the time to locate and compile the records.”

In a follow-up contact, Ray Vincent, the college’s attorney and member of its Charter Authorization Review Committee, told the Tulsa World he persuaded Rose State officials to turn over the readily available records more quickly.

Through a five-year sponsorship contract, Rose State College will receive a 2.5% cut the first two years and a 3% cut for the final three years of all state aid received by Tulsa Classical Academy. In the first year, those initial sponsorship fees will likely add up to about $100,000, but they’ll increase as TCA adds grade levels and grows its student enrollment.

Asked what lessons were learned and actions taken at Rose State from the October 2020 investigative state audit critical of the institution’s lack of oversight of Epic, Ashley Glass of Jones PR responded: “Rose State College’s charter oversight has always been in compliance with the Oklahoma Charter School Authorization requirements.”

She said before the state audit, Rose State had already begun the process of changing its application, approval, and oversight of charter schools and it will continue to add staff positions to help manage charter school partnerships.

“The Charter Authorization Office was developed and formally approved by the Board of Regents in April of 2020,” she said. “Rose State College will continue to comply with the policies and expectations set forth in the (state charter school law) by conducting regular site visits, completing yearly curricular audits, and reviewing yearly reports that each school must present to the Rose State College Board for Financial Audits and Student Success Data.

“Additionally, as we do with all charter partners, we will actively monitor the school’s website information, board agendas/minutes, and other media to inform of any improvement recommendations we might share with them.”

Sheila Dills, a former state representative, said she decided not to run for reelection in 2022 after running up against a brick wall while working for two years on legislation to spell out statutory responsibilities and accountability for charter school sponsors, such as Rose State College.

Dills, a Republican who represented south Tulsa’s House District 69 for two terms, had been the House’s point person on drafting new transparency and accountability policy measures as a result of the Epic scandal.

“It really bothered me that we cannot, as a Legislature, act on things that are right in front of our eyes that have been discovered by our state auditor, and obviously, now discovered by other public officials,” said Dills, referring to the Epic Charter Schools scandal. “It’s right in front of us that taxpayers are getting ripped off and we need to do better — but we don’t want to act. I didn’t feel like I could be effective with the leadership of the new Senate Education committee. What it all comes down to are factors that are not in the best interest of the people but in the best interest of the politicians.”

State Senate Education Chair Adam Pugh, R-Edmond, did not follow through after saying he would respond to the Tulsa World’s request for comment for this story.

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