GEER Funds
Members of the Epic Charter Schools Board hold a meeting on Wednesday, July 13, 2022. (Megan Prather)

From the release of a federal audit revealing the state’s misuse of more than $650,000 to the resignation of Epic Charter Schools Board Chairman Paul Campbell, the Oklahoma education news cycle this week was relentless.

Also this week, a local college forgave $4 million in student debt and we saw some head butting between the state’s top education officials regarding the release of funding for early childhood education.

If you happened to fall behind on the plethora of headlines, don’t fret! The following roundup of Oklahoma’s education happenings should catch you up before we head into what one can only imagine will be another week of nonstop news. What else do you expect in an election year?

Federal audit of GEER funding released

Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Education Office of the Inspector General released an audit of Oklahoma’s use of $40 million in Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEER) money that the state received during the COVID-19 pandemic. The audit recommends the state return more than $650,000 in misspent funds.

During the pandemic, the state gave a no-bid contract to the Florida-based company ClassWallet to administer a program called Bridge the Gap Digital Wallet, which provided $1,500 grants to low-income families for educational purchases. However, the audit shows that $652,720 in funds were used on non-educational expenditures such as televisions and gaming consoles.

State officials have said that ClassWallet assured them no fraud would take place and have even threatened to sue the company, but the audit states that Oklahoma did not use all of the available controls in the ClassWallet system to monitor how grant money was being spent.

The audit shows that the state did not follow federal guidelines for four education-relief programs, including the Stay in School Program, Learn Anywhere Oklahoma, Skills to Rebuild and Bridge the Gap Digital Wallet. However, an incentive grant program managed by the State Department of Education, which was used to support educational needs such as internet connectivity and mental health support, did meet federal guidelines.

Epic Charter Schools Board chairman resigns

Epic to pay Ron Sharp
Epic Charter School Board President Paul Campbell leads a board meeting on Wednesday, July 13, 2022. (Megan Prather)

Epic Charter Schools Board Chairman Paul Campbell announced this week that he would be resigning from his position in order to spend more time with his family and to focus on his business, Spartan Energy Services, and on the charter school Academy of Seminole, which he founded in 2018 and where he currently serves as board chairman.

Campbell announced his resignation in a letter to Epic Charter Schools Board members and staff dated July 20.

“In my time here, you have completely shifted from a for profit model to a ‘students first’ model. A school literally on the brink of closure is now fully in compliance with its authorizer and I would argue is now a state leader in all things compliance,” Campbell wrote. “You consolidated into one school. Saving millions of taxpayer’s dollars. Your relationships with other government agencies and stakeholders, outside of some political theater which too shall pass, is the best it’s ever been.”

Campbell joined the Epic Schools Board in May of 2021 as the school was in the process of making corrective actions following a scathing audit from the State Auditor & Inspector’s Office and cutting ties with co-founders Ben Harris and David Chaney, who were arrested in June on charges of racketeering, embezzlement and conspiracy.

“On behalf of Epic Charter School’s Board of Education, administration and our 37,000 students and families, we appreciate the dedication and time of Paul Campbell to advancing significant changes for the betterment of our school,” Epic Schools Board Vice Chairwoman Ginger Casper said in a statement. “Paul’s leadership set a clear direction and helped navigate the administration through complex situations to stabilize the organization. With this guidance, the successful reorganization of Epic Charter Schools is almost fully realized, which included school consolidation, alignment of resources, and critical action plans to retain compliance.”

Hofmeister demands release of funding for Oklahoma Early Childhood Program

According to a press release from the State Department of Education, Oklahoma Secretary of Education Ryan Walters has refused to approve a state-mandated contract with the Oklahoma Early Childhood Program, despite the Legislature allocating $12 million to the program for fiscal year 2023.

The press release claims that Walters blocked the contract owing to a pending special audit of Tulsa Public Schools. However, while the organization is based in Tulsa, the contract with OECP does not involve the school district.

“Secretary Walters’ refusal to approve this expenditure, which is required by law, received an appropriated line item and has been in state statue since 2006, is worse than irresponsible,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister said in a statement. “His gamesmanship bullies infants and children but it is not surprising. This is a pattern of Gov. (Kevin) Stitt’s administration when they don’t get their way or need to distract from their own financial scandals.”

OECP was created by the Oklahoma Legislature in 2006 and provides early childhood education to children in poverty across the state. According to the press release, the Legislature has provided as much as $12 million annually for the program with funds privately matched and administered by the Community Action Project of Tulsa County.

Walters provided a response to the press release on Twitter.

“I am committed to transparency and accountability for taxpayer’s dollars and basic questions go unanswered for this program. A simple email instead of a straw man, politically motivate [sic] press release could have provided the transparency I have requested,” Walters wrote. “We’ve got out of control spending in the department of education that has not provided results for parents, teachers or kids so every program that I oversee will be reviewed. Hofmeister is quick to cry fowl without providing answers, becoming more of the problem.”

Mannix Barnes revocation hearing postponed

Western Heights, Mannix Barnes
Former Western Heights Superintendent Mannix Barnes, left, and the district’s legal counsel, Jerry Colclazier, head into Oklahoma County District Court Judge Aletia Timmons’ courtroom Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021. (Megan Prather)

The hearing regarding the revocation of suspended Western Heights Public Schools Superintendent Mannix Barnes‘ educator certificate, which was scheduled for July 25, has been postponed owing to the retirement of the administrative law judge presiding over the hearing.

The revocation hearing has been rescheduled multiple times and a new date for the hearing has not yet been set. Barnes initially had his educator certificate suspended by the State Board of Education at its meeting in June 2021.

The board suspended Barnes’ certificate after placing the Western Heights Schools district under probation, citing the “utmost concern” over district operations, including:

  • failure to provide in-person instruction from March 2020 through April 2021;
  • a decision in the spring of 2020 not to provide nutritional services to students;
  • an audit report showing violations of state law, including the use of 2018 bond proceeds meant for contracting and repairing facilities to pay off debt instead;
  • a board member consuming alcohol during a public meeting;
  • a 23 percent drop in student enrollment, from 3,365 to 2,597 in the previous year, and a loss of more than 100 staff members in the previous two years;
  • disharmony in the school environment and community.

The State Department of Education recently filed a request in Oklahoma County District Court asking a judge to remove Western Heights Schools Board President Robert Everman from his position owing to his failure to address a troubling annual school audit.

OCCC forgives $4 million in student debt

Oklahoma City Community College announced Monday that it will be using COVID-19 relief funds to forgive about $4 million in student debt.

According to a press release from OCCC, the Fresh Start Initiative will impact more than 4,500 OCCC students. OCCC has already distributed about $17 million from the federal Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund in emergency financial aid grants to students.

“The pandemic affected our students and their families in various ways, and we recognize that many are still facing hardships in the aftermath,” OCCC President Mautra Staley Jones said in a statement. “OCCC is an institution of new beginnings, and this initiative truly gives our students a fresh start. We hope this clears the way for them to continue their educational journey in the fall.”