year in Oklahoma education

What a long, strange year it’s been.

We collectively coped with adjusting to COVID-19, an election and a massive power outage all in the span of 365 days. For that, I think we all deserve an air high-five.

But before we plunge into a new year, take a moment to stroll down Oklahoma education memory lane with this collection of notable NonDoc stories from the unforgettable year of 2020.

School’s out for now: ‘This is a dynamic situation’

In March, the Oklahoma State Board of Education ordered all public, charter and virtual schools closed until April 6 to help curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“This is a dynamic situation. It’s very fluid,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister said during an emergency State Board of Education meeting March 16.

The Board of Education was confronted with other COVID-related issues throughout the year, including failed calls for a statewide school mask mandate as well as cancelling school report cards for the 2020/2021 school year.

Stitt announces $10 million in PPE for schools

Flanked by Philip Abode and Rep. Sherrie Conley (R-Newcastle), Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt announces the dedication of $10 million toward PPE purchases for Oklahoma public and private schools Thursday, July 30, 2020. (Tres Savage)

In July, Gov. Kevin Stitt announced the state would spend $10 million to purchase personal protective equipment for public and private schools so they would be able to open safely in the fall.

In addition to PPE purchases, Stitt issued an executive order directing the State Department of Health and State Department of Education to prepare a plan by Aug. 21 to offer testing to all state teachers for COVID-19 on a monthly basis.

The PPE was distributed in August, however some district officials expressed frustration over the timing of the distribution, as they had already gone through their budgets to find money to purchase items themselves.

Stitt moves teachers up for vaccine, State Board cancels school report cards

Gov. Kevin Stitt announced on Thursday, Dec. 17, that teachers would be moved to phase two of vaccine distribution. Teachers were originally in phase three of the distribution hierarchy.

During the announcement, Stitt also put pressure on local school boards to return to in-person learning for the spring semester.

“We cannot lose another semester educating our young people,” Stitt said during the press conference. “My goal is to get every kid in school in person in January, however we need to do it.”

Stitt also suggested the State Board of Education could get involved in the process and provide pressure.

“The State Board could potentially pass some type of rule that could supersede some of the local decisions,” Stitt said.

Epic Charter Schools audit seeks return of funds

Epid audit
State Auditor & Inspector Cindy Byrd discusses an audit of Epic Charter Schools on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020, at the Oklahoma History Center. (Tres Savage)

An investigative audit of Epic Charter Schools was released by the State Auditor & Investigators Office on Oct. 1.

The audit revealed that Epic owes the state $8.9 million after using Oklahoma tax dollars to fund a venture in California and allegedly violating a state law that limits how much money a charter school can spend on administrative costs.

During a special meeting Oct. 12, the State Board of Education unanimously approved a motion to demand Epic return $11,235,919 to the State Department of Education.

The Statewide Virtual Charter School board met Oct. 13, where members approved a motion to enter the process to terminate their charter authorization contract with Epic One-on-One Charter Schools owing to alleged contract violations. The termination hearing will take place March 8-11.

The SVCSB has provided oversight to Epic One-on-One Charter Schools as their charter authorizer since 2014. Rose State College is the charter authorizer for Epic Blended.

Epic approves corrective actions

Epic Charter Schools
Community Strategies discussed corrective actions regarding Epic Charter Schools at their meeting Monday, Dec.7, 2020. (Megan Prather)

During an October meeting, Community Strategies, the governing board for Epic Charter Schools, approved a motion to begin their first round of corrective actions following the investigative audit.

The corrective actions included:

  • Amending the intercompany agreement between One-on-One and Blended to require board approval for all payments between schools
  • Amending the operating agreement between schools and Epic Youth Services to require board approval to more specifically set forth how Learning Fund and management fees are calculated
  • Instructing the internal auditor to ensure invoices are issued and paid in a timely matter
  • Requiring board approval for any other financial transactions
  • Holding monthly rather than quarterly meetings in 2021.

During a December meeting, the board approved corrective actions for Epic Blended surrounding non-compliance issues found federal programs monitoring. Issues of non-compliance included discrepancies in reporting regarding low-income students, a lack of teacher knowledge of homeless requirements and identification procedures, under-identifying and providing inadequate services to English-learning students and failure to provide services to students in special education programs.

Corrective actions surrounding federal programs monitoring include:

  • Retraining staff on homeless identification and services
  • Creating more clear procedures to direct the utilization of funds for homeless students
  • Outlining procedures for identifying English-learning students more thoroughly
  • Revising procedures for Oklahoma Cost Accounting System reporting

Stitt names Ryan Walters new secretary of education

Ryan Walters
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt announced the nomination of former state teacher of the year Ryan Walters to be his new secretary of education Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020. (NonDoc)

On Sept. 10, Gov. Kevin Stitt nominated Ryan Walters, a former state teacher of the year finalist and executive director of the reform group Every Kid Counts Oklahoma, as the new Oklahoma Secretary of Education.

The role of the secretary of education is to advance the governor’s education policy initiatives regarding common education, higher education and career technology centers. The position is also responsible for working with the State Board of Education, college and university boards of regents or trustees, the Office of Educational Quality and Accountability and the State Board of Career and Technology Education.

Read NonDoc’s Q&A with Walters after he was appointed here.

Prosecutor declines to seek charges for David Boren, Tripp Hall

David Boren, Tripp Hall
The special prosecutor appointed to investigate former OU President David Boren, left, and former OU Vice President Tripp Hall, right, announced Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020, that no charges would be sought. (NonDoc)

In October, the special prosecutor appointed to consider the investigation into alleged sexual misconduct by former OU President David Boren and former OU Vice President Tripp Hall decided not to seek a grand jury criminal indictment against either man.

In March 2019, both Boren and Hall became the subject of an Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation inquiry into allegations that they kissed, touched and otherwise pursued sexual encounters with OU students and employees. Boren was already being investigated by the Jones Day law firm hired by the university when NonDoc published a story detailing the allegations of Jess Eddy, a former classroom aide to Boren who said the former governor and U.S. senator came onto him multiple times, kissed him and touched him inappropriately. The details of the Jones Day report remain private other than the revelation that “six witnesses” described scenarios involving Boren consistent with Eddy’s story.

Eddy said Hall also had touched him inappropriately, and a University Club employee named Levi Hilliard detailed multiple allegations of unwanted sexual advances by Hall. Another OU student also made allegations against Hall.

“This saga and this anxiety and the hurt that it caused to the Borens is now over, and I’m very pleased with that,” said Clark Brewster, an attorney who represented both Boren and Hall. “The sun comes up this morning for them and they are able to lead their lives like they should have with a degree of pride for what they’ve done for the University of Oklahoma and the state of Oklahoma.”

‘What are we supposed to do now?’: High school graduates end anticlimactic senior year

COVID-19 affected a lot in the education world this year, including the senior years of high schoolers across Oklahoma.

A May report from NonDoc looked at how seniors at Norman North, Deer Creek, Hartshorne, Santa Fe South and Collinsville adjusted to an unexpected ending to their high school careers.

College students adjust to online classes amid pandemic

online classes
OU ballet performance senior Hannah LeComte takes barre in her home in Kentucky. (Provided)

When COVID-19 hit in March, universities around the nation moved classes online and began cancelling spring graduations. While the adjustment may have been stressful to students and faculty, some decided to look at the silver linings.

Read the full story about how a ballet and business major, as well as university staff, transitioned to virtual college learning here.