OKLAHOMA CITY – In March, Sen. Ron Sharp, a member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education, requested financial information from the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) regarding funding to one of the state’s largest public brick and mortar charter schools. The agency told the senator they were working on his Open Records request but after nearly three months of receiving no answers, the senator’s request was placed on hold. In June, OSDE’s legal counsel responded that there would be an $850 fee for the labor required to provide the financial information.
Sharp is seeking information as to why the OSDE provided allocations to Epic Blended Charter School for grade levels the charter school has acknowledged publicly it did not provide accommodation or instruction for during the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years.
“The legislature should have access to any and all financial information from the state agencies we’re entrusted to fund and oversee. The public expects us to be good stewards of their money and we must hold our state agencies, including the State Department of Education, accountable for their spending,” said Sharp, R-Shawnee. “I’m especially disturbed by the agency’s unwillingness to provide information given that I’ve pointed out that Epic Blended Charter School received state aid for grades they didn’t provide. I want to get to the bottom of this.”
Under the Oklahoma's Open Records Act, public entities may charge limited fees for the cost of searching and copying public records.
While he believes the fee is unreasonable, Sharp is more concerned with why the agency will not address the suspicious discrepancy in Epic Blended Charter School’s state funding.
Epic Blended Charter School was created in May 2017 under the Oklahoma Charter School Act and is sponsored by Rose State College. The school opened in Oklahoma and Tulsa Counties in the Fall of 2017 with two sites (an Oklahoman City church and a Tulsa office building). In 2018, an additional site was opened at another Oklahoma City church.
Sharp pointed out that Epic Blended Charter School’s website shows that during the 2017-18 school year it only accommodated Pre-K through 5th grade and Pre-K through 6th grade during the 2018-19 school year. Epic’s Assistant Superintendent of Communications Shelly Hickman verified in an email to Senate staff on June 24, 2019, that the school only provided those grades during those years.
The school’s website relates it will open a new facility in Midwest City for grades 7th-12th during the 2019-20 school year.
Sharp is concerned because Epic turned in enrollment numbers for the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years for grades Pre-K through 12th and both years, the OSDE provided a state allocation to the school for all of the grade levels.
The school reported it accommodated 7,000 students during the 2018-19 school year at its three sites.
Epic Blended Charter Middle School received $23 million in State Aid during its first year in operation (2017-18) and $40 million the following school year (2018-19). As the sponsor, Rose State College received 2.75 percent of the charter school’s State Aid allocation the first year and three percent thereafter according to their 2017-2022 contract.
“The school’s charter with the college allows it to provide pre-K through 12th grades. I’m just confused why they turned in enrollment numbers for grades that their website and an administrator said they didn’t provide,” Sharp said. “Perhaps this is a clerical error or an oversight but as legislators we must be good stewards of the people’s tax dollars, especially when it comes to our education system.”
In FY 2017-18, Epic Blended Charter School reported 3,078 enrolled students for 6th-12th grades and 3,995 enrolled students in 7th-12th grades in FY 2018-19 according to OSDE grade level enrollment numbers.
In 2018, the OSDE provided an A-F site grade complete with enrollment numbers to Epic Blended Charter Middle Schools (Grades 5th-8th) in both Oklahoma City and Tulsa. The final OSDE A-F grade for the two Epic Blended Charter High School sites was a "No Grade" but there were a total of 91 public school sites that received the same in 2018. A “No Grade” is commonly given because a school does not meet the required percentage of students taking end of instruction exams.
Both the Epic Blended Charter Middle School and High School sites were listed as having a 98% attendance record at grade levels it did not accommodate, according to its website and administration.
“I don’t understand why the Department of Education won’t give me an answer on this issue but instead have waited months to respond and now want to charge me an unreasonable fee to get the answer. This is not open and transparent government,” Sharp said.
Like traditional public schools, the OSDE allocation of funds to brick and mortar charter schools is based on Weighted Average Daily Membership (ADM). The State Aid funding formula takes into consideration various weights to pay for Special Needs Education and grade level enrollment.
Sharp shared many other concerns with OSDE legal counsel including that Epic has reported as “unrecoverable” more than 6,000 laptops in its 2018-19 inventory. It is unknown if the computers were provided to the school’s virtual students or to those enrolled in its brick and mortar charter school.
"There are several questions that I have requested the Department of Education to answer during the last year, and I have yet to receive answers. The public deserves to know how their tax dollars are being used by this school district,” Sharp said.