Statewide Charter School Board
Newly elected chairman of the Statewide Charter School Board Brian Shellem looks at executive director Rebecca Wilkinson during a meeting Monday, July 8, 2024. (Bennett Brinkman)

The newly created Statewide Charter School Board held its first meeting Monday and elected a conservative Edmond activist as chairman. The meeting comes as the board and Oklahoma Catholic Church leaders weigh the fallout from a recent state Supreme Court decision that said charter schools cannot have religious affiliation.

Edmond parent and unsuccessful mayoral candidate Brian Shellem was elected to be the board’s first chairman after serving on the SCSB’s predecessor — the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board — for the last eight months of its existence. In 2013, the Oklahoma Legislature passed Senate Bill 516 to abolish that five-person board and replace it with the Statewide Charter School Board, a nine-person body with expanded responsibilities and powers.

At the SCSB’s meeting Monday, Shellem praised the new board’s mission after being elected chairman.

“This is one of those things that’s really exciting about our state: We understand we need to improve the educational outcomes for our state,” Shellem told reporters after the meeting. “This board is going to be the tip of the spear of what’s going to happen in the state. We are going to bring new ideas and new charter schools that will hopefully improve the educational outcomes.”

The seven members present for the meeting unanimously elected Shellem as chairman and Jared Buswell as vice chairman. Appointed by Gov. Kevin Stitt, Shellem runs Advanced Automotive Equipment. Appointed by House Speaker Charles McCall (R-Atoka), Buswell runs Look Inside Tulsa and unsuccessfully challenged the president of the Tulsa Public Schools Board in April 2023. Buswell also serves as board chairman for a Christian mission organization called Favor International.

The SCSB includes three appointees from the governor, two appointees from the Senate president pro tempore and two appointees from the speaker of the House. Additionally, the state superintendent of public instruction and the state auditor and inspector (or their designees) sit on the board.

One-hour executive session held for St. Isidore ruling

The new Statewide Charter School Board will retain sponsorship of all virtual charter schools that the SVCSB had previously authorized, and it also has the ability to sponsor other brick-and-mortar charter schools moving forward.

The board is also the new sponsor for St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School, which the SVCSB sponsored in June 2023.

If it had been allowed to open, St. Isidore would have been the nation’s first religious charter school. But the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled June 25 that the SVCSB’s contract with St. Isidore violated the state and U.S. constitutions and ordered the SVCSB to rescind its contract with the school.

As a result of the ruling, members of the St. Isidore board said at a June 28 meeting in Broken Arrow that the school would not open this year and would not accept state money. The same day, at their last meeting, members of the SVCSB declined to rescind the St. Isidore contract.

On July 5, St. Isidore filed a motion with the state Supreme Court asking justices to stay their order that the board rescind the St. Isidore contract pending a U.S. Supreme Court appeal. Lawyers for the school specified they are not seeking a stay of any other part of the ruling beyond the order to rescind the contract.

“The requested stay would be limited. It would affect no other portion of this court’s decision and (…) it would not permit St. Isidore to open to children or allow state charter-school funding to go to St. Isidore while review by the U.S. Supreme Court is sought,” lawyers for the school wrote in their motion. “The limited stay would simply preserve the current contract in the event the U.S. Supreme Court reverses.”

SCSB members spent the majority of Monday’s two-hour meeting in executive session discussing St. Isidore litigation. Upon returning to the open meeting, members declined to vote on the St. Isidore contract, citing the stay motion.

“Based on the advice of counsel, we do plan on honoring and respecting the decision of the Supreme Court, and we will always be in compliance with that ruling,” Shellem said at the end of the meeting.

State Board of Education removed as charter school authorizer

In other housekeeping items for the new board, executive director Rebecca Wilkinson told board members Monday that seven charter schools across the state are considering moving their sponsorship to the SCSB.

“[SB 516] extends the opportunity for this board to authorize all kinds of charter schools: virtual charter schools — as we have in the past — but also brick-and-mortar and blended charter schools,” Wilkinson said.

Additionally, the new board inherited sponsorship of four brick-and-mortar charter schools from the State Board of Education, which can no longer sponsor charter schools per SB 516.

Wilkinson also served as the SVCSB’s executive director. She explained to board members Monday that the new board’s funding is different from how the SVCSB was funded. Wilkinson said all of the SVCSB’s funding came from sponsorship fees paid by its charter schools. Now, schools no longer pay sponsorship fees, and the SCSB is funded by an SCSB revolving fund, to which the Legislature appropriated $6.7 million for Fiscal Year 2025.

Wilkinson noted that $3.4 million in the revolving fund had been earmarked for the Horizon program, the state’s “online learning platform” for students and schools.