Oklahoma Watch and reporter Jennifer Palmer on Tuesday filed a lawsuit against Epic Charter Schools asking the court to order the release of emails under the Oklahoma Open Records Act. The news organization first requested the documents on July 26.
Specifically, the lawsuit named Epic Blended Learning Centers, Epic One-on-One Charter School, and Superintendent Bart Banfield as defendants. Epic is a public charter school funded by taxpayers.
Palmer requested the emails to and from Epic co-founder Ben Harris dated Jan. 1, 2019 through July 25, 2020 that used his Epic Charter Schools address. Email, like traditional written correspondence, is treated as a document under the state’s Open Records Act.
Epic spokeswoman Shelly Hickman responded to the request on Aug. 20, saying the school would produce the records at an estimated cost to Oklahoma Watch of $40,691.26 for copying, reviewing and redacting the records and said the school would begin the process upon receipt of a $20,345.63 deposit.
Ted Streuli is the executive director of the non-profit Oklahoma Watch and president of Freedom of Information Oklahoma, a nonprofit organization formed to protect government transparency.
“These records are owned by the public,” Streuli said. “The law is clear that the public is entitled to see their own documents. Inventing and inflating fees is merely a tactic to subvert the law and keep the public away from what’s rightfully theirs, from work they’ve already paid for with their taxes.”
The Open Records Act requires public bodies to make records available for in-person inspection during business hours and caps photocopying charges at 25 cents per page, which is meant to reimburse the entity for the costs of supplies such as paper and toner.
Palmer narrowed her request on Aug. 25 to just Harris’ emails from June 20, 2019 to Aug. 30, 2019. Hickman replied in a Sept. 16 email that the cost would be $1,604 for so-called copy charges and $3,208 for legal review.
KatieBeth Gardner, a Tulsa-based attorney with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press representing Oklahoma Watch and Palmer, informed Epic that photocopying was unnecessary and that the Open Records Act made no provision for the public to pay for legal work. Epic’s attorney responded that the school could not be expected to absorb those costs and reiterated the copying charges.
“All we’re asking for is to see documents the public owns,” Streuli said. “In my experience, the only time a public body tries to keep the public away from public business is when there’s something they really want to keep hidden. Our job is to represent the public, who don’t have time to challenge this nonsense. We have the time. And we’re not going to stand by while a public entity hides from the very taxpayers who are paying their salaries. Those emails belong to the public and we intend to make sure the public knows what’s in them.”
Epic Charter Schools has grown into the largest school system in Oklahoma with an enrollment of nearly 60,000 for the 2020-21 school year. Epic has been the subject of multiple investigations and inquiries by law enforcement agencies and other government entities, including the FBI and the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation.
Harris co-founded Epic Charter Schools and also co-owns Epic Youth Services, a for-profit company that has managed the schools since inception for a 10% share of the school’s revenue.
Palmer’s reporting shows Harris is very involved in the school and frequents the school board meetings, including closed sessions. He spearheaded the school’s expansion into California as well as a short-lived management deal with Panola Public Schools.
In 2019 it was Harris who persuaded a state lawmaker to drop a bill Epic, in an email to parents, called “the most damaging legislation to Epic families.” The legislation would have created two student enrollment periods, threatening Epic’s ability to enroll students year-round, except under certain circumstances.