Correction: This story originally listed the incorrect hometown of state Rep. Mark McBride. It has been corrected.
The State Auditor and Inspector’s report on Epic Charter Schools included a host of recommendations for policymakers to consider to increase transparency and accountability for the use of taxpayer dollars in the future.
So what do education policy leaders from the Oklahoma State Senate and House of Representatives make of the forensic audit findings?
Most said the need for additional legislation was made clear — and none gave any credence to Epic’s claims that State Auditor Cindy Byrd’s findings were politically motivated or rooted in opposition to charter schools or parent school choice.
The Tulsa World asked Rep. Mark McBride, R-Moore, chair of the House education sub committee on appropriations and budget, whether he read the 105-page audit report and whether he though legislation is needed to address any of the concerns raised in it.
“Yes and yes,” was his response. “There has been understanding ever since the audit began that its findings would likely inform future bills, and members will definitely have bills on this topic when filing begins later this year. The legislative process will determine what the final product looks like.”
Sen. Joe Newhouse, R-Tulsa, and vice chair of the Senate education committee, had only tackled the audit’s executive summary so far but said he would be making time to study the full report in-depth.
“Rep. Sheila Dills (R-Tulsa) and I and many others have been on board from the beginning in promoting greater transparency for virtual charter schools. This report is only going to trigger greater response from the Legislature,” he said. “Some areas have been identified and we are going to make sure we tighten those screws.”
Newhouse said he champions school choice options for parents, including virtual charter schools, and has rooted for Epic to succeed, so “I think it’s a tragedy that the report found so many glaring mistakes and shortfalls.”
“When this organization was found to be owing the state roughly $9 million, not to mention it identified several shortcomings my constituents are very concerned about, it’s quite the dilemma because this charter school offers such a tremendous service in the pandemic,” Newhouse said. “I am hoping Epic can address these and put confidence back into their system. We are asking them to do right by the taxpayer and right by the families and teachers and students.”
Since the World asked lawmakers for their take on the state audit report, we also asked for their take on Epic’s response that State Auditor Cindy Byrd must be anti-charter school or anti-parent school choice.
“I don’t agree. This is about taxpayer dollars, plain and simple,” McBride said.
Newhouse called it a “stunt” and likened it to the tricks magicians use to distract their audience.
And he likened Epic’s attacks on the state auditor to its failed lawsuit against Sen. Ron Sharp, R-Shawnee, after he publicly questioned Epic’s student attendance and enrollment practices.
“I have worked very closely with Auditor Byrd on a number of other issues. I have the highest esteem for her and her integrity — she is somebody who is a true public servant,” Newhouse said. “This is now the state’s largest organization educating our students. There are areas that need to be addressed, so why redirect the attention on the messenger instead of focusing on the message? I would like to see Epic focus on what’s in the audit and not try to turn the attention to the auditor.
“Take ownership of the problems. Come clean and say we are going to work on this and focus on this.”
Outgoing Sen. Gary Stanislawski, R-Tulsa, longtime chairman of the Senate Education Committee and author of most of the legislation that has allowed Epic to operate and expand, said he doesn’t believe there are any policy implications raised by the forensic audit findings.
“I have read the report and the State Auditor has not convinced me that additional legislation is warranted at this time. With the passage of (House Bill) 1395 there will be much more transparency concerning virtual charter schools. The audit did exactly what it was intended to do, find areas of weakness and allow the school to correct the deficiencies.”
The author of HB 1395, which took effect last year, said she questions whether specific concerns about Epic can be addressed by added transparency and accountability measures because she was dismayed to learn from the state audit report that Epic apparently didn’t comply with the new requirements set forth in that legislation.
Under HB 1395, charter school management organizations must now provide itemized, not estimated, expenditure information to ensure schools can account more fully for their use of taxpayer dollars. The state audit found that Epic Charter Schools did not provide an accurate accounting of actual costs for its for-profit charter school management company, Epic Youth Services.
“I am very disappointed that Epic Youth Services submitted estimates of expenditures after the coding requirements of HB1395 became law. But equally disappointing, is the fact that the State Department of Education accepted the estimates,” said HB 1395 author Sheila Dills, R-Tulsa. “According to the law relating to the Oklahoma Cost Accounting System, schools are required to submit actual costs not estimates.”
Stanislawski said every public school in the state goes through an audit process each year and frequently the auditors find areas of weakness, which are then corrected by the board.
“Just because there were areas of weakness, the state does not create new laws,” he said, adding, “I do not see an issue with for-profit charter school operators. I believe to assume not-for-profit is somehow superior is using faulty reasoning.”
Stanislawski does not, however, agree with Epic’s claims that the auditor findings were politically motivated or the result of anti-charter school, anti-parent school choice beliefs.
“It is unfortunate that Epic responded that way,” he said. “I believe the state auditor is acting in the best interest of the state and I did not see anything to the contrary.”
Staff writer Curtis Killman contributed to this story.
Video: State auditor releases Epic Charter Schools investigation.
Epic Charter Schools: A Tulsa World investigation.