Former Epic Teachers Sue School Over Firing, Alleging Enrollment Manipulation

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Whitney Bryen / Oklahoma Watch

An Epic Charter Schools administrative office building is seen on 122nd Street in northwest Oklahoma City.

Two former teachers have filed lawsuits against Epic Charter Schools, alleging they were fired for pushing back against pressure to manipulate the enrollment of their students.

Notices that the teachers intended to sue were previously filed with the school, as reported by Oklahoma Watch in June. Two other teachers who filed notices have not yet filed lawsuits.

The lawsuits, by Noelle Waller and Shauna Atchley, also raise issues with the virtual school’s employment practices, such as its bonus pay system. Waller was hired in 2013 and Atchley in 2017; both were fired in June 2018 and say they are owed all or part of their bonus payment for the 2017-18 school year.

Epic has previously denied the allegations. The lawsuits were filed Friday in Oklahoma County District Court; Epic’s lawyers have not yet filed responses.

Both lawsuits allege Epic recruited teachers based on a bonus structure that allows teachers an opportunity to earn double their base salary. Teachers were told they could earn significantly more at Epic than other schools.

However, Epic pays out the bonuses the following year, and only if employees are still employed with Epic at the time.

“Epic’s business model depended on terminating a significant number of teachers, while retaining the students that the teachers had recruited,” Waller’s lawsuit alleges.

Waller, in the lawsuit, alleges her principal, Jodie Shupe, insisted certain students be withdrawn from her roster for truancy and those students always happened to be low-performing based on benchmarking exams. She says the pressure to withdraw increased in January or February, as state testing approached.

Atchley, too, alleges her principal, Kristie Surface, pressured her to withdraw students, told her “she needed to dump all her students that reduced bonuses” and once called a low-performing student a “waste of time,” according to the lawsuit. 

Principals also receive bonus payments based on students’ scores.

Waller says Epic terminated her employment citing her students’ test scores. She says her scores were lower than other teachers’ in part because she refused to withdraw students who did not test well.

In Epic’s response to her intent to sue, an attorney for the school says Waller was fired for other reasons, such as failing to comply with an employee agreement and handbook, inappropriate conduct, parent complaints, habitual poor performance, unprofessional and rude behavior and repeatedly bringing a weapon into a testing site.

Similarly, Atchley says at the time she was fired, Epic cited “performance issues.” But in a response, an attorney for Epic alleges Atchley’s employment was actually terminated for failing to comply with the employee agreement and handbook, and her relationship with her pet monkey, which Epic says she brought to a testing site without authorization.

An attorney representing Atchley and Waller says those reasons are false and weren’t raised before the teachers were fired. Waller has told Oklahoma Watch the “weapon” was a cane.

Both teachers are asking the judge to award them at least $75,000.