Over the past week, three charter school organizations have seen important developments, with one having its first day of classes today, another facing a new state audit and a third being searched for a second time by law enforcement during an ongoing investigation of embezzlement allegations.
Two of the schools, Seeworth Academy Charter School and Epic Charter Schools, have been under investigation this summer for separate reasons. While it is still unclear how things will turn out for those organizations, a new charter called Sovereign Community School will now be holding classes where Seeworth once operated.
New school at Seeworth’s old location
Seeworth Academy had voluntarily opted to relinquish the school as a charter and hand over all assets to OKCPS due to allegations of financial misconduct.
However, Seeworth’s board of directors held back on some of their agreements, including a refusal to give up its lease on a property that OKCPS sought for its operation of the alternative school.
But Friday, the Seeworth board held a meeting and decided to relinquish the lease to allow Sovereign Community School to operate in the building. Having faced adversity in finding a location for its first school year, Sovereign’s focus is a curriculum based on culture and student wellness. Today marks its first day of class.
Brent Bushey, executive director of the Oklahoma Public Schools Resource Center, told NonDoc on Friday that the two organizations had been in talks for a few weeks.
Sovereign announced on its Facebook page Aug. 16 that the school had found a place to call home at 12600 N. Kelley Ave., the address of Seeworth Academy.
Sovereign had originally lined up other facilities, but those fell through, Bushey said.
“It came together very quickly,” Bushey said of Sovereign’s move to the former Seeworth building. “It was a much more affordable and better solution for Sovereign.”
State auditor requested
While Seeworth has now relinquished its building lease, the Oklahoma State Board of Education voted Thursday to ask State Auditor and Inspector Cindy Byrd’s office to audit Seeworth’s zombified governing entity.
The Seeworth organization’s board had previously approved a private audit to be conducted on its “corporate account,” but it’s unclear if that audit was completed.
“With any closure, there is a process to completing the books and closing that out. So the state board is asking for assistance from the state auditor inspector with this task,” Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister said Friday. “So that will go forward now. Then we want to keep our focus on students and making certain that [OKCPS] has what they need to move forward as well.”
Since May, Seeworth has been on thin ice dealing with the regulatory bodies to which it reports.
On May 2, OSDE sent a letter to the Seeworth board saying it had found evidence of “multiple artifacts to demonstrate gross neglect and non-compliance with both state and federal laws and regulations,” including failing to account for taxpayer dollars and maintain accounting records.
Asked if the department had faced difficulty obtaining records from the Seeworth board, Hofmeister told reporters, “Well, we are where we are.”
Asked if OSDE thought Seeworth had participated in criminal behavior with federal funds, Hofmeister said it was not her job or the department’s job to speculate.
“We know that we first have to have an accounting of assets and it is something that the auditors office for a special audit is equipped to handle, and that is something beyond what we are able to do,” Hofmeister said.
Two of Seeworth’s board members are public officials: Sen. Kay Floyd (D-OKC) and Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals Judge Barbara Swinton.
“We know that they did — we believe — the right thing in closing the charter, and that was a move that they did voluntarily,” Hofmeister said of the Seeworth board. “The investigation of whatever lies ahead with those then that are responsible for keeping the records and the expenditures of funds in accordance with state and federal law is something that is a typical part of the closing of a school.”
OSBI conducts second search in Epic investigation
The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation has obtained new evidence in its investigation into allegations of embezzlement involving Epic Charter Schools, the Oklahoman reported Thursday.
The Oklahoman reported that OSBI had searched the home of Kurt Talbott of OKC Storm Athletics, a home-school athletics organization and an Epic vendor. Investigators alleged in a search warrant that the organization illegally received state funds from the school.
“Kurt Talbott employed over a dozen coaches who were not certified teachers and provided direct instruction to players,” OSBI agent Tommy Johnson reported in a search warrant, according to the Oklahoman. “Kurt Talbott admitted that state appropriated funds were used to buy uniforms for Epic students, cover some of the costs of paying the coaches, and other expenses of the OKC Storm.”
Epic has continued to deny any wrongdoing.
(Editor’s note: Tres Savage contributed an interview to this story. The story was updated at 11:45 a.m. Monday, Aug. 26, to clarify a description of Sovereign Community School.)