The Oklahoma City Public Schools Board voted unanimously Monday night to request an investigative audit of Santa Fe South Charter Schools, whose superintendent is also in charge of a nonprofit development corporation that supports Santa Fe South and loaned $300,000 to another local charter school.
The audit request comes as Santa Fe South is transitioning its charter authorization agreement from OKCPS to Oklahoma City Community College, and it marks the third time a high-profile charter school’s finances have been the subject of investigative audit requests over the past two years.
“I move to request the State Auditor and Inspector to conduct a special audit of Santa Fe South Charter School for fiscal year [2018-2019 and 2019-2020] and any other years deemed necessary for compliance with statutes, rules, policies and internal control procedures or other items applicable to Santa Fe South Charter School,” the board’s vice chairman, Mark Mann, said during the meeting.
As the charter authorizer for Santa Fe South through June, OKCPS provides oversight of Santa Fe South’s high school, middle school and four elementary schools. Charter schools in Oklahoma are public schools and must be authorized by either a school district, technology center or regional institution with charter authorizers allowed to retain up to 5 percent of state aid received from the State Department of Education. OCCC will be taking over as charter authorizer for Santa Fe South on July 1.
During a State Board of Education meeting last week, board members discussed that Santa Fe South Schools, Inc. had provided a $300,000 loan to Sovereign Community School, another charter in Oklahoma City, as the newer school dealt with financial difficulties. Established in August 2001 by Santa Fe South Superintendent Chris Brewster, Santa Fe South Schools, Inc. is a non-profit entity that holds and develops properties for the charter schools.
“As you look into a situation like this and you continually find more and more things that just continue to add on top of one another and layer on one another, at some point you have to say, ‘We need to have someone that is qualified to unravel this and look at it and tell us what, if anything, is wrong here,'” Mann told NonDoc early Tuesday.
Asked about the situation, Brewster said the vote for an investigative audit came as a surprise to him.
“My only thought is that we’ve become a political football right now. The timing is just too odd for a number of reasons,” Brewster said Tuesday. “One would be the state board’s decision to settle the funding equity lawsuit with charters. Another issue is, after 19 years, we’re moving our authorizer contract from Oklahoma City [Public Schools] to Oklahoma City Community College, and the tremendous source of revenue that the district has seen for many years is going to be gone.”
Brewster said Santa Fe South has paid OKCPS around $4 million in administrative fees in the last 10 years.
Brewster also said the loan agreement with Sovereign Community School dates back to May 2020 and that there was complete transparency with both Oklahoma City Public Schools and the State Board of Education, which is the charter authorizer for Sovereign Community School.
“We thought, ‘Where can we find ways to support this group in their mission?’ It was through [Santa Fe South Schools, Inc.], not Santa Fe South Schools, which is a separate non-profit, making a short-term loan to them to bridge the gap in their financial process,” Brewster said. “We were very transparent with the State Board of Education, which is their authorizer.”
Brewster also serves as president of the Oklahoma Public Charter Schools Association.
Prior charter school audit requests
Santa Fe South will become the third prominent charter school to have undergone an investigative audit in recent years.
In 2019, Seeworth Academy Charter School, also authorized by OKCPS, opted to dissolve the school amid allegations of financial misconduct and administrative malpractice. Following the closure, the State Board of Education voted to request the State Auditor & Inspector’s Office audit the governing entity, which was also supported by a supposedly separate private foundation. Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd (D-OKC) and Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals Judge Barbara Swinton served on the Seeworth Academy Board, which eventually filed a police report regarding alleged embezzlement by the school’s superintendent.
The Seeworth Academy audit is still being finalized, and Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater has said he wants to review the report for consideration of potential criminal prosecution.
Gov. Kevin Stitt also asked State Auditor & Inspector Cindy Byrd to audit the controversial Epic Charter Schools in July 2019. The investigative audit was released in October 2020, showing Epic owes the state $8.9 million. In an October meeting, the State Board of Education approved a motion to recoup $11.2 million representing over-expenditures on administrative costs and state funds used for development expenses for Epic California.
Statement from Oklahoma City Public Schools
Oklahoma City Public Schools released an official statement about the Santa Fe South audit request following Monday evening’s meeting.
“The purpose of the special audit requested is to determine compliance with statutes, rules, policies and internal control procedures,” said Beth Harrison, chief of communications. “In light of comments shared at the OSDE Board of Education meeting on Friday, April 9, the board felt this was an important step to take as an authorizer of Santa Fe South.”