Updated July 15, 2020.
The agency overseeing the state’s virtual schools joined the legal battle to pry free some of Epic Charter Schools’ financial records.
With a 4-0 vote, the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board on Tuesday approved filing an amicus brief to side with the State Auditor and Inspector in its case against Epic’s management company, Epic Youth Services. An amicus brief is a legal document from a third party that provides information relevant to the case.
At issue is more than $69 million in state funds that Epic has spent since 2015 through its “learning fund,” which is intended to purchase technology, curriculum, supplemental items and extracurricular activities that students request. The fund is a key recruitment tool for Epic, whose enrollment has soared in recent years, to more than 30,000. The funds are transferred to Epic Youth Services, which maintains it doesn’t have to provide records because it is a private company.
Statewide Virtual Charter School Board Chairman John Harrington said for the board to fulfill its oversight role, access to these records is critical.
“This is the information that any of our charter schools have agreed to provide, and we expect to see that type of information,” he said.
Harrington said the board’s contract with Epic stipulates that educational expenditure information would be available.
When asked why the board hadn’t sought the information before, Harrington likened it to the Internal Revenue Service asking for a taxpayer’s receipt following years of processing and accepting their tax returns. “This is the sort of information that we assume is on record, accessible and available and … we’ve made that clear,” he said.
The Statewide Virtual Charter School Board was established by the Legislature in 2015 to authorize and oversee all statewide virtual charter schools. Epic had previously been operating under what was then Graham Public Schools.
The amicus brief was filed Wednesday. It outlines which contract terms support releasing the records, including a stipulation that virtual charter schools “cooperate fully in all aspects” of requests by the State Auditor.
The State Chamber of Oklahoma previously filed an amicus brief in the case, siding with Epic Youth Services, and arguing that to require a private contractor working for a public charter school to release proprietary information would set a harmful precedent.
The development is the latest in an ongoing probe into Epic Charter School’s operations and finances. Last summer, Gov. Kevin Stitt ordered an investigative audit of the school and its related companies following allegations by state law enforcement investigators that the school’s founders embezzled millions in state funds. Epic has denied any wrongdoing and no charges have been filed.
Epic Youth Services is run by the school’s two co-founders David Chaney and Ben Harris. The for-profit company has refused to comply with auditors’ subpoenas asking for records, emails and bank information.
The state auditor, represented by the Attorney General’s Office, in March asked a judge to force Epic to provide the records. The next hearing is scheduled for Aug. 5.
Last month, attorneys for the State Auditor filed an affidavit in the case from Statewide Virtual Charter School Board Executive Director Rebecca Wilkinson, stating she believes the learning fund records should be open for inspection.