The Epic Charter Schools board accepted the resignation of 11-year member Mike Cantrell and appointed new member J.P. Franklin at Monday night’s meeting.
“I’ve stayed on the board for so long because I really do believe in what they’re trying to do,” Cantrell told NonDoc prior to the meeting. “I’m really disappointed by the reaction of what I would call the ‘Oklahoma public education establishment’ to be so defensive and not receptive.”
Cantrell, who has served on the board for both Epic One-on-One and Epic Blended since the virtual charter schools’ inception, said he resigned owing to health problems, and he praised the charter school for its innovation despite an ongoing criminal investigation.
He has also defended Epic throughout the investigative audit process run by the State Auditor & Inspector’s Office, which has alleged a misuse of state funds and has released thousands of pages of Epic documents to the public. During an October meeting of the State Department of Education, members voted to recoup $11.2 million in alleged over-expenditures on administrative costs and alleged use of state money to fund Epic Charter Schools California.
“It’s a very disappointing sham in my opinion,” Cantrell said. “The State Board has audited us, and we’ve been audited by their approved auditors ever since inception and never had a major problem. They’ve always approved the audits. All of a sudden it becomes a political football and the state auditor and the State Department of Education all joined together and piled on. Where were they before? Were they not doing their job for 11 years?”
Cantrell has also criticized a lawsuit that State Auditor Cindy Byrd’s office has filed against Epic Youth Services in an attempt to access financial records regarding Epic Youth Services, the for-profit management company that manages the controversial Learning Fund.
“They don’t have a right to look at a private company’s records,” Cantrell said. “They can look at the Learning Fund itself, but what they want is access to everything that that company does. They don’t have a right to that. It’s a principle more than it is an issue.”
The state auditor’s lawsuit was slated for a Dec. 16 hearing in the Oklahoma County District Court. However, according to court documents the hearing was stricken and parties were to “continue exploring (the) protective order issue.”
“When the dust settles and it’s all cleared, if the truth is ever known you’re going to find out that we’ve got a problem in our State Auditor’s office,” Cantrell said. “I don’t know if they impeach state auditors, but this one may be in line for that. I don’t think we’re the only entity that has had problems with them.”
Byrd took issue with Cantrell’s criticism, issuing her own statement that is included at the bottom of this story.
The Epic board approved replacing Cantrell with J.P. Franklin, a Chickasha resident and former Epic parent with experience in the construction and contracting business. Epic Superintendent Bart Banfield said those experiences will be useful to the board.
“We do a lot of work with volume purchasing for different curriculum licenses, and that’s something I feel would be beneficial for our board,” Banfield said.
Termination hearing scheduled to start March 8
Epic’s attorney, Bill Hickman, provided a legal update to board members Monday night, which included dates for depositions surrounding the termination hearing of the charter authorization between Epic One-on-One and the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, which is scheduled to begin March 8.
Depositions will begin this week and come from former SVCSB Chairman John Harrington, SVCSB Executive Director Rebecca Wilkinson, State Auditor and Inspector Cindy Byrd and representatives from Byrd’s office.
“We’re working expeditiously to prepare to defend the school in the termination hearing,” Hickman said during the meeting. “We’ve filed a motion for summary judgement. The virtual board’s attorney has filed in return to that, and I’m working to get that scheduled to be heard by the board as soon as possible.”
At the hearing, Epic will be allowed to present argument as to why their contract with the SVCSB should not be terminated despite alleged contract violations.
Monday night, the board also heard from internal auditor Linda Ladd regarding the SA&I’s findings in October and issues of miscalculations raised by Epic’s attorney.
“We’ve received the work papers related to this audit finding this past Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021. Upon receipt of those, that’s when the 60-day time period started relating to the demand letter issued by the State Department of Education,” Ladd said. “We look forward to working with the State Department of Education to ensure any discrepancies related to this is resolved.”
The board entered executive session to discuss the investigative audit regarding Epic One-on-One, but no action was taken according to Shelley Hickman, Epic’s managing director of external affairs.
For Epic Blended specifically, board members unanimously approved a revised corrective action plan surrounding non-compliance found in federal programs monitoring. At a December meeting, the board moved to initiate corrective actions including retraining staff on homeless identification and services, creating more clear procedures to direct the utilization of funds for homeless students and outlining procedures for identifying English-learning students more thoroughly.
During the meeting, Epic Chief Financial Officer Josh Brock said the revisions to the plan are minimal and include wording changes requested by the State Department of Education.
After the meeting, Epic co-founder Ben Harris explained the situation further to NonDoc.
“The corrective action got corrected by the SDE. They wanted some changes. We made changes. The SDE wanted that to be approved by our board, so the board approved the corrective action plan,” Harris said. “The corrective plan, just so you’ll know, it wasn’t like a global corrective plan. It was simply regarding a federal funding corrective action plan, which is a routine submission we make. But it was a routine submission we make that the SDE sent back, and we redid it.”
Response from State Auditor & Inspector’s Office
Oklahoma State Auditor & Inspector Cindy Byrd’s office sent a statement to NonDoc late Tuesday following publication of Cantrell’s comments.
“After our forensic auditors interviewed Mr. Cantrell, an 11-year member of the Epic School Board, he was unable to provide any specifics concerning the financial operations of the school he was tasked to govern,” Byrd’s statement said. “Most concerning, Mr. Cantrell could not tell us about the operating agreement, which the school board approved, to hire Harris and Chaney’s private company to manage the school.”
The statement also rebutted Cantrell’s claims that the auditor’s office wants access to all of Epic Youth Service’s records, arguing that the Learning Fund consists of public school money that EYS was hired by the school board to manage for student learning needs.
“Mr. Cantrell should recognize we do not want access to everything the company does; we have never asked, nor would we ever ask, to audit the 10 percent management fee paid to the private company, that is their personal income,” Byrd said. “However, the Learning Fund, by distinction, is not owned by the private company and it is not their personal funds.”
Byrd said any money from the Learning Fund not used for students should be returned to the school’s general fund.
“That is why the members of the Epic School Board should insist on the private company turning over the records of the Learning Fund for public oversight,” Byrd said. “Epic may try to discredit the audit, and insult me personally, yet the Epic School Board, including Mr. Cantrell has implemented many of the changes recommended by our audit.”
(Update: This article was updated at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 26, to include a statement from State Auditor & Inspector Cindy Byrd.)