Oklahoma’s State Auditor and Inspector Cindy Byrd said she is “deeply concerned” as she announced the initial findings of a five-year audit of Oklahoma’s largest school district, Epic Charter Schools. KGOU’s Dick Pryor and eCapitol’s Shawn Ashley discuss the report and how it might affect charter schools in Oklahoma in this Capitol Insider segment.
Epic Charter Schools audit announced
Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider, your weekly look inside Oklahoma politics, policy and government, and of course, we also talk about elections. I’m Dick Pryor with eCapitol news director Shawn Ashley. Shawn, State Auditor and Inspector Cindy Byrd announced the first part of an investigative audit of Epic Charter Schools. And she said, and I quote, “I have seen a lot of fraud in my 23 years and this situation deeply concerns me.”
Shawn Ashley: Yes, Auditor Byrd said Epic had designed an administrative system that was not consistent with the Oklahoma Charter School Act and their charter agreements with the state. And she explained that that allowed them to divert tens of millions of dollars to a for-profit entity and away from the classroom, if you will, away from the students. Now, the auditor noted that the full audit is 120 pages long, and Auditor Byrd said it would take hours to explain all the violations that we (the Auditor’s office) discovered.
Dick Pryor: Shawn, what was Epic’s initial response?
Shawn Ashley: Epic Charter Schools Assistant Superintendent Shelley Hickman, called Byrd’s press conference political theatrics. And she accused the auditor of attacking parents’ rights to choose the public school they think is best for them. However, Auditor Byrd pointed out in her press conference that her concerns and complaints were not about the charter schools in general, but were particular to Epic.
Dick Pryor: The auditor said these are just the first findings of the audit. What else is her office working on?
Shawn Ashley: Yeah. Byrd was really not clear about that. But one thing that she did note is that the audit does not cover Epic’s Learning Fund, and that Learning Fund provides about a thousand dollars directly to its students for curriculum supplies and extra-curricular activities. That fund, Byrd said, has never been independently audited. And in fact, Epic has challenged her authority to audit that fund in a case that is pending in Oklahoma County District Court.
Dick Pryor: This is a very big story.
Shawn Ashley: It’s significant because Epic is really the state’s largest school district today with more than 60,000 students. And from Fiscal Year 2015 to Fiscal Year 2020, it received more than 450 million dollars in state funding. Some lawmakers, like Senator Ron Sharp, a longtime critic of Epic, have been talking about increased oversight of virtual charter schools for a number of years now. And I think we will see a lot of bills proposed in the upcoming legislative session that address that issue.
Dick Pryor: The Department of Corrections announced it is suspending in-person visitation at all state-run facilities indefinitely because of rising COVID-19 cases. And the state continues to be in the red zone for increase in new cases and returned to the red zone for positivity rate. What does data tell us about why the state remains in the red zone?
Shawn Ashley: Yeah, it’s really interesting. Amber Integrated, an Oklahoma City-based public relations firm, recently did a poll and included some questions on COVID-19 in it. They found that respondents, when asked if they thought a mask can slow the spread of the coronavirus, only fifty percent strongly agreed. Twenty-two percent somewhat agreed and asked if they wore a mask seventy-six percent said they wear a mask all the time or some of the time. So really what that means is that you have a lot of people walking around out there – some who may have coronavirus who are not taking the simplest step that experts say can help slow its spread.
Dick Pryor: The state of Oklahoma is receiving more test kits. What do we know about the kits and how are they going to be used?
Shawn Ashley: Yes, the state is receiving 77,000 rapid test kits that the State Department of Health will distribute to public schools, high risk health care workers and other vulnerable populations. The specific details of the plan on how they’ll be distributed and how they’ll be used have not yet been released but we should see that in the coming days. These are the same tests that were recommended by the White House (Coronavirus) Task Force to be used to help slow the spread in the state and identify potential hotspots.
Dick Pryor: The coronavirus story is continuing to evolve and evolve quickly. Are there any other indications of what the state of Oklahoma might be doing?
Shawn Ashley: We’ve heard from the governor many times, as well as the interim commissioner of health, that they will not implement a statewide mask mandate, leaving that to local officials to deal with. However, what we’ve been seeing in communities across the state is that some of them are pulling back on mask mandates like in Tishomingo. We see now, too, in Norman, for example, that its mask mandate is being challenged. So, the whole issue of how to safely protect Oklahomans from the spread of COVID-19 is one that’s being fought in city council chambers and in the courtroom.
Dick Pryor: Thanks, Shawn.
Shawn Ashley: You’re very welcome.
Dick Pryor: That’s Capitol Insider. If you have questions, e-mail us at email@example.com, or contact us on Twitter @kgounews and @ecapitol. You can also find us online at kgou.org and ecapitol.net. Until next time, with Shawn Ashley, I’m Dick Pryor.