Epic Charter Schools’ experiment running a rural Oklahoma school district has ended.

The Epic company that has managed Panola Public Schools in southeastern Oklahoma since 2017 has notified the district it is terminating its contract two years early.

The move wraps up the virtual charter school’s most ambitious effort to assume management of a public school district and bring its blended model to rural communities. It’s unknown if Epic will continue to pursue the strategy with other districts.

Panola is in a financial bind similar to what it faced three years ago, when the state Department of Education nearly forced the district to close due to lack of funds.

Voters last week approved closing the district’s high school and making the district pre-K through 8th grade only, beginning in 2020-21. Had the proposal failed, the district likely would have dissolved.

With just 23 high school students last year, five of whom graduated, district leaders said they didn’t expect to have enough funding to operate a high school going forward.

Panola students could attend Red Oak High School, Epic or another high school of their choice.

The Panola Public Schools board is shown meeting in the high school’s cafeteria in April 2019. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

Panola also has a new part-time superintendent that is shared with nearby Red Oak Public Schools. Brad Corcoran, Panola’s former superintendent who led the charge to convert to a charter school and partner with Epic, is now managing director of instruction for Epic, according to Epic’s administrative directory.

Epic is the state’s largest virtual charter school, and one of the largest in the country. It has faced criticism for its aggressive recruitment of students and teachers from traditional school districts and its lagging academic achievement. The school is under investigation by several law enforcement agencies and is being audited by the State Auditor and Inspector.

Panola inked a deal with Community Strategies-CA, a limited liability company that is a subsidiary of Epic Charter Schools, for management services in 2017. The agreement states the company would manage the district for a 10% share of its revenue plus $100,000 toward Panola’s debt.

Some public education advocates bristled at the idea that a private management company could effectively take over a district. 

Bart Banfield, Epic’s superintendent, notified the Panola school board that Community Strategies-CA was ending its contract on June 30 after three years.

“Epic values the experience with Panola and appreciates the opportunity to be a part of the education of your great community,” Banfield wrote in the letter, dated May 14. “We believe our three-year partnership has been very successful.”

Panola’s budget has gone from deficit to surplus, he noted, and the efficiencies created by the partnership allowed the district to avoid closure for “three years and beyond.”

He also said the district’s performance improved by two letter grades. But according to the state Education Department, Panola Elementary received a C in both 2017-18 and 2018-19. Panola High School received an F, with fewer than 95% of students tested.

Banfield, in the letter, and Epic co-founder Ben Harris, in an email to Oklahoma Watch, say the management company terminated the contract because the Panola board opted to share a superintendent. Earlier this year, however, Epic attempted to merge Panola with another district, Brushy Public Schools, a pre-K through 8th grade district near Sallisaw, 75 miles northeast of Panola. Brushy’s school board considered a proposal to annex Panola in January but did not vote on it, meeting minutes show.

Bryan Deatherage, superintendent of Red Oak, said after he heard about that proposal, he contacted Epic and suggested having Red Oak annex Panola. Red Oak is eight miles east of Panola.

“(Epic) wanted to somewhat exit gracefully and have someone else take them on,” Deatherage said.

A postcard from last year marketed Epic Charter School’s blended learning center in the Panola district. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

The idea resembled one Epic offered in 2018, when it proposed consolidating Norwood Public School in Hulbert with Panola, 100 miles away. Ultimately, the Norwood board declined. 

Red Oak considered options to annex or consolidate Panola, but ultimately proposed sharing a superintendent; it has sent the proposal to the state Board of Education for approval. 

Deatherage said he hopes the arrangement will at least allow Panola to continue serving students for a while.

“I believe in small schools. I don’t want to see any small school lose its identity,” he said. “We want to try to help Panola sustain something there as long as we can.” 

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