Epic Charter Schools’ newly appointed governing board was put in place to help the troubled online school come into compliance with state law.
But the board’s vice chair, so alarmed by what she’s seen and heard behind the scenes, resigned suddenly Wednesday, Oklahoma Watch has learned. She implored authorities to investigate the school for a number of issues.
A three-page letter of resignation written by Kathren Stehno details her concerns, which include harassment and intimidation of female employees creating “an often-hostile work environment.” She also cited what she called alarming data about students withdrawn for truancy and violations of the state’s Open Meetings Act.
Several women, who are current and former employees, reported being harassed by board Chairman Paul Campbell, Stehno wrote. “They have been yelled at, berated, subject to profane comments and implied threats to their employment,” according to the letter. (See below)
Additionally, Stehno’s letter claims that when the board’s internal auditor raised concerns about large, unapproved staff bonuses paid for with public funds, her position was threatened and she resigned. Linda Ladd was hired to be the board’s internal auditor in 2020. Ladd couldn’t be reached for comment Saturday.
Campbell is an aerospace company executive and founder and chairman of another charter school, The Academy of Seminole. He joined Epic’s board, the legal name of which is Community Strategies, in May.
When reached by phone Saturday, Campbell referred questions to Epic’s new communications manager, Chelsi LeBarre.
In a statement sent late Saturday, LeBarre wrote: “Epic takes any allegation received about personnel seriously. Epic is conducting an internal investigation, recusing any members accused. Preliminary results from the internal investigation have not shown any evidence of the allegations made by (Stehno).”
The school board in May cut ties with founders David Chaney and Ben Harris and their private for-profit management company, Epic Youth Services. An investigative audit released in October 2020 found the school exceeded administrative spending by millions of dollars, and they have been ordered to return $11 million to the state. Part two of that audit is pending.
Three others on the schools’ internal auditing team were terminated Nov. 12 as part of a “reduction in force” that school officials claimed was a “right-sizing” of the organization as a result of losing 33,000 students in fall of 2021, records show.
Stehno, in her letter, said that the entire internal auditing team has been terminated. Maintaining an internal auditor is one of many stipulations Epic agreed to save its school from closure earlier this year by the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board.
“It is alarming that the school does not have a method for employees to report fraud to the Community Strategies Board without fear of retaliation and threats to their employment,” she wrote.
Stehno, when reached by phone Saturday, declined to comment. Stehno did confirm the authenticity of the letter.
Stehno was the longest serving board member, having been appointed to the Epic board in December 2020 as the school began a full board turnover. She’s an assistant professor of education at Southwestern Christian University, has a doctorate in educational leadership and 42 years of experience in education, including classroom teaching and as a university researcher.
An Oklahoma Watch investigation in 2019 revealed Epic’s practice of withdrawing large numbers of students for truancy. Several teachers sued the school over it and their cases were settled last year. Stehno’s letter claims the practice continued.
She also raised concerns about data the internal auditor collected revealing “extremely large and unapproved bonuses that exceeded employee contracts without board approval.” These large compensation packages and raises for staff led her to question the layoffs in November. Board members found out about the layoffs through news reports.
When Stehno asked at the Nov. 17 board meeting why the board wasn’t notified of the layoffs before they saw it in the news, Campbell replied: “I feel very confident that this has been well thought through, and there’s been a lot of empathy poured into this, and I’m surprised you’re surprised, to be honest with you.”
Stehno, in her letter, described the exchange as “unkind and unprofessional.”
She also implored investigators to look into possible violations of the Open Meetings Act.
Shelly Hickman, Epic’s longtime spokeswoman, was among the staff members terminated last month. Additionally, Price Lang public relations recently ended their agreement with Epic.
Hickman’s husband, private practice attorney Bill Hickman, is no longer representing Epic. He has represented Epic in multiple lawsuits, including an unsuccessful libel suit against a state senator.
Stehno said Bill Hickman reviewed her resignation letter before it was sent.
Oklahoma Watch has a pending lawsuit against Epic Charter Schools seeking the release of emails to and from co-founder Harris from June 20, 2019 to Aug. 30, 2019 under the Oklahoma Open Records Act.
Correction: In a previous version of this story, the name of Epic spokeswoman Chelsi LeBarre was spelled incorrectly. This version has been updated.
Jennifer Palmer has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2016 and covers education. Contact her at (405) 761-0093 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @jpalmerOKC