Rose State College, which was criticized by state auditors for providing weak oversight of Epic Charter Schools, is considering authorizing another charter school. 

That school is currently named St. John Christian Heritage Academy, a private religious school in northeast Oklahoma City operated by St. John Missionary Baptist Church. As a charter school, the name would change, records show. The school’s governing board plans to retain close ties to the church, despite a state law that prohibits charters from being “affiliated with” a private school or religious institution. 

Rose State’s Board of Regents met Wednesday to discuss the Epic Charter Schools audit but did not take action. They said they want to hear from Epic leaders first. Epic declined to attend Wednesday but is expected to present at the November meeting.

Rose State’s board president said they want to improve as an authorizer.

The regents accepted the application for the school to be named the W.K. Jackson Leadership Academy on Sept. 17.  Like Epic Blended, which Rose State sponsors, W.K. Jackson Leadership Academy intends to have a “blended” school model, coupling virtual education with optional on-site attendance. It plans to open in 2021 with pre-K through second and fifth grade students.

The college has not finalized a contract with the school or finished reviewing its application.

School leaders, in their application, say the charter school’s programs, admissions policies, employment practices and all other operations will be nonsectarian, meaning not specific to a certain religion, which is required by state law. 

But all of the four board members in the proposal have close ties to St. John Missionary Baptist Church, according to their biographies, which were provided to Rose State as part of the school proposal. 

“The W.K. Jackson Leadership Academy seeks to be a free public charter school having previously been a private educational institution,” the application states. “In conjunction with the board of directors, the school collaborated closely with the governing bodies of the officers of the church. That organizational structure is still active.” 

Bobby Sharp, the main applicant, is president of the current private school’s board and a trustee on the church’s board, as well as a deacon, an officer of the church. The other three are or have been deacons, trustees, or current members of the private school’s board.

The church’s pastor, M.L. Jemison, is an incorporator on the legal documents to form the school’s nonprofit entity.

Charter schools are prohibited from being “affiliated with” a nonpublic sectarian school or religious institution. 

“Affiliated” is not defined in the Oklahoma Charter School Act, but a 2012 state attorney general opinion describes it as “closely associated with another in a dependent or subordinate position.” It has to be more than simply sharing a facility, according to the opinion.

The act states the onus is on charter authorizers: “A sponsor may not authorize a charter school or program that is affiliated with a nonpublic sectarian school or religious institution.”

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When reached by phone, Sharp, the president of the proposed school’s board, declined to comment until the contract was finalized. 

“We’ll be glad to visit with you as soon as we get something substantial and concrete,” he said.

Rose State College’s charter authorization office, which was formed earlier this year, has reviewed the school’s proposed curriculum. It will conduct unannounced site visits and audit the charter’s curriculum annually to ensure its complying with state and federal laws, said Travis Hurst, associate vice president for academic affairs. 

It could be the first private school turned public charter in Oklahoma, though such transitions have occurred in other states. 

In 2016, leaders of a Catholic school in Tulsa received authorization to open a public charter school called Drexel Academy, according to a Tulsa World story. Eventually, the charter plan was abandoned and it’s now operated as a private school. 

Auditors Say Weak Charter School Oversight an Issue 

Brenda Holt, a state auditor, presented some of the findings from a recently released audit of Epic Charter Schools to the Rose State College’s Board of Regents on Oct. 21, 2020. The board was criticized by state auditors for providing weak oversight of Epic and, now, it is considering authorizing a second charter school. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

Last week, the state Board of Education ordered Epic to repay $11.2 million and the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board moved to terminate its contract with Epic because of the audit findings. 

Auditors found financial mismanagement including estimated and mis-coded expenditures and excessive administrative spending. Lax oversight and a cozy relationship between the charter management organization and the school were other major issues. 

Epic refutes the auditor’s findings. 

The Statewide Virtual Charter School Board is the sponsor for the Epic One-on-One school and Rose State is the sponsor for Epic Blended school, which encompasses Oklahoma and Tulsa counties. Epic operates several learning centers in those counties where students can receive meals and help from teachers.

Rose State has sponsored Epic Blended since 2017 and has collected $3.7 million in sponsorship fees during that time. Auditors said Rose State provided inadequate oversight. 

According to the audit, released Oct. 1, Rose State simply took Epic’s provided audits at face value and because they were “fairly clean,” and requested no follow up review or documentation. 

“Charter school sponsors who default to others for accountability or accept whatever information charter schools provide at face value cannot achieve effective oversight,” auditors wrote. “There has to be greater financial oversight, be it statutorily mandated or through the willingness of the sponsor to ask the hard questions.”

Board Chairman Brandon Clabes at Wednesday’s meeting asked auditor Brenda Holt how the college could provide better oversight. 

She responded they should first review the contract with Epic and go step by step to compare with the audit findings and see if the agreement has been broken. “I believe there are areas where your contract has been broken,” Holt said.

Correction: Rose State College currently authorizes two charter schools: Epic Blended and Dove Science Academy. A previous version of this story said W.K. Jackson Leadership Academy could be the second.

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