Epic Youth Services
Epic Charter Schools governing board, Community Strategies, met Wednesday, May 26, 2021, where members approved a motion to terminate their contract with the private management company Epic Youth Services.(Screenshot)

The Epic Charter Schools board, Community Strategies, voted Wednesday night to terminate their contract with the private educational management company Epic Youth Services as of July 1. Epic Youth Services is owned by the schools’ co-founders, Ben Harris and David Chaney.

The board also accepted the resignation of members Betsy Brown, J.P. Franklin and chairman Doug Scott, approving forensic accountant Jon Tatum, attorney Danny Willians Sr., attorney Ginger Casper and businessman and Academy of Seminole founder Paul Campbell as Epic One-on-One and Epic Blended’s new respective board members.

The motion to terminate contract with EYS, which managed Epic’s controversial “learning fund,” called the decision mutual.

“There is a deep bench of talent among the educators and public servants employed at Epic and they outgrew the management of EYS some time ago,” Campbell, the board’s new chairman, said in a statement Wednesday night. “Severing ties with EYS will result in tens of millions of dollars in savings, and the school will be taking a significant leap forward in technology during the next 18 months for students, parents and teachers. Moreover, this board is not open to contracting with an education management organization ever again, much less a for-profit company. Every dollar lost to a company like that is a dollar not invested in students. This school’s bottom line is educating and empowering students. Not turning a profit.”

Superintendent of Epic Charter Schools Bart Banfield also praised the board’s decision.

“We are thankful this board has freed us to be completely focused on what is best for children,” Banfield said in a statement. “Our decision-making will be grounded in the answer to this fundamental question: How does this educate and empower students? We look forward to working collaboratively with the board as we move forward to create exciting educational opportunities for Oklahoma students.”

‘Our board has voted to sever all ties’

Epic Charter Schools were co-founded by Ben Harris and David Chaney, who also own Epic Youth Services, under the nonprofit company Community Strategies in 2011. State investigators have had concerns over how EYS manages state-allocated funds, and they have made allegations of abuse and fraud.

An investigative audit released by the State Auditor & Inspector’s Office in October alleged that Epic owes the state $8.9 million and that Epic Youth Services has received $79.3 million in state money for the student learning fund, along with $45.9 million in management fees, between FY 2015 and FY 2020.

EYS has not been cooperative throughout the audit process. A report from The Frontier revealed that upon the first meetings with auditors, Harris had refused to reveal how EYS had spent the millions in taxpayer money or how many employees the company had.

State Auditor & Inspector Cindy Byrd had issued subpoenas to EYS for financial records. However, EYS had claimed that, as a private company, their financial records should not be publicly audited, with litigation for financial records ensuing in the Oklahoma County District Court.

At a meeting in April, Epic’s school board had approved a motion to move the school’s learning fund from under EYS’s private account management to public bank accounts owned by Community Strategies doing business as either Epic Blended Learning Charter or Epic One-on-One Charter School, respectively.

Separation from EYS was part of Epic’s settlement with their charter authorizer, the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, to end charter termination proceedings that were brought against the school in October. 

Chaney and Harris released a statement following the board’s decision Wednesday night.

“At this time, we feel it is best for EYS and Epic to pause our professional relationship and to give each entity a chance to determine how to best serve families moving forward in light of the recent settlement agreement,” Harris and Chaney said. “While this is a sad and difficult decision for us, we believe it is in the best interests of EYS and, most importantly, the 50,000-plus students Epic Charter Schools and EYS currently serve.”

While Harris and Chaney’s statement said it was best for the entities to “pause” their professional relationship, Epic Assistant Superintendent Shelly Hickman clarified to NonDoc Wednesday night that the statement is inaccurate.

“We aren’t in a ‘pause.’ Our board has voted to sever all ties,” Hickman said by text.

‘No secret the Community Strategies board was criticized’

The resignations from the three board members Wednesday night leave Kathryn Stehno and Wyjuana Montgomery as the only members of the previous board.

Outgoing board chairman Scott said he is confident in the governing abilities of the board moving forward.

“It’s no secret the Community Strategies board was criticized in the state audit,” Scott said in the statement. “Like many volunteer, nonprofit boards, we relied on the information provided to us to make decisions for a very complex and unique school system. As soon as we knew the information provided to us was lacking or not accurate, we took decisive, bold actions. I’m proud of the work we’ve accomplished in the last year and I’ve always been proud of the mission of this school and of the work of its dedicated teachers and administrators. We have transformed thousands and thousands of children’s lives and it gives me a deep sense of peace to know that work will continue under the governance of this board.”