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Sharp Still Questions Charter School Oversight

 

Sen. Ron Sharp

Sometimes perseverance pays off.

Ron Sharp, the Republican state senator from Shawnee, has endured threats, punishment and more for the last year or so as he has investigated the virtual charter school situation in Oklahoma. Until last week, he seemed to be getting nowhere.

Then the State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI) announced last week that it is seeking search warrants for evidence that Epic Charter Schools may have embezzled millions in state funds by inflating enrollment figures. That announcement was quickly followed by Gov. Kevin Stitt and State Superintendent of Public Instruction calling for an investigative audit, a move echoed by Democratic and Republican legislators alike.

The OSBI claims that Epic co-founders David Chaney and Ben Harris "devised a scheme to use their positions as public officers to unlawfully derive profits from state appropriated funds." The search warrant seeks evidence of embezzlement, obtaining money by false pretenses and racketeering.

Meanwhile, Sharp is continuing to ask questions.

"On July 22, I requested Dr. Rebecca Wilkinson, executive director of the Oklahoma State Virtual Charter Board, provide Epic One on One Virtual Charter School enrollment on a county by county enrollment," Sharp told The Countywide & Sun Tuesday.

"Dr. Wilkerson responded the State-wide Virtual Charter School Board does not maintain such a county by county enrollment record count. The Assistant Attorney General for the Virtual Charter School Board responded in an email that board has never kept a county by county enrollment for the virtual students. Again, it is this board and bureaucrats that have oversight of all virtual student enrollment and reported to the OSDE to provide an per student allocation ... (There is) absolutely no oversight to the Virtual Charter School schools."

This is only the latest request for information Sharp has made on the issue. In one case, the State Board of Education tried to charge him more than $800 for the records he requested. They have since backed down.

Despite the fact that most public school superintendents don't like the growth of Epic and other charter schools because they've lost teachers and students to them, the state board has not been cooperative. And neither has most of the Legislature.

"Those (legislators) who support charters are against public schools," Sharp said. "They will turn over every stone, create every obstacle" when changes are proposed.

"The legislature is just as much at fault for Epic being under investigation as the state boards," Sharp said. "They have not provided the correct legislation for oversight. Supporters have blocked it every time. They think even a bad charter school is better than a good public school."

Sharp became concerned about the situation in 2018. At an interim study about charter school financing, "superintendents went ballistic, " he said, about losing teachers, students and money to the charter schools.

In preparation for the 2019 legislative session, Sharp last fall introduced seven bills that would have addressed funding mechanisms, attendance accountability and other areas of concern expressed by public school administrators he has been working with. This was in spite of the fact that there was already a target on his back because of his efforts.

As Sharp was preparing his legislation, new Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat was preparing his committee assignments. Although Sharp had been vice chairman of the education committee for some time, Treat moved him to the judiciary committee.

Named chairman of the education committee was Sen. Gary Stanislawski, who has been a champion of virtual charter schools. He authored the Virtual Charter School Act in 2010 and then authored an amendment creating the State Virtual Charter School Board, which was "logrolled" into a 2012 textbook funding appropriation.

Only one of Sharp's bills even got a committee hearing, and the bill that made it to the house floor failed on a 23-20 vote.

A few weeks earlier, Sharp learned that both the Shawnee Public Schools administration and the county received Open Records requests regarding him. Shawnee Superintendent Dr. April Grace confirmed that her office received a request for "the existence of Mr. Sharp's initial application for employment and any final disciplinary action."

Sharp retired from Shawnee Public Schools in 2012 after 38 years as a history and government teacher to run for the State Senate.

A records request to the county was addressed to the "Pottawatomie County Police Department" and asked for "all citations, fines, inspections, violations or other negative evaluations issued to or against" Sharp. It was signed by Ronnie Gransky, who could not be located online.

Melissa Dennis, chairman of the county commissioners at the time, said the county decided not to respond after determining that "was a bogus name and a bogus address."

Both requests apparently originated with Axiom Research Group, which controls Cannon Research Group and is a large Republican consulting group known for candidate opposition research.

Although the virtual charter schools receive state funding, from the same pot as traditional public schools, Epic is a for-profit company. Harris and Chaney are the brains behind the operation, which is patterned after a similar program in Florida that came under investigation in 2003 for alleged bribery. No charges were filed.

Epic has recently expanded to California, where it is again under investigation. And in 2013, then-Gov. Mary Fallin asked for an investigation into allegations of fraud. The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation spent a year looking into it and turned its findings over to the Attorney General. There had been no charges or announcements since then until the OSBI announcement last week.

Epic officials and their families have made significant campaign contributions to Treat, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, the Governor and the Attorney General as well as other legislative candidates.

David Chaney, Co-founder, Epic Charter School

Sharp, who has spent most of his evenings reviewing contracts between Epic and the state, is concerned that the company will receive its funding for the coming year Aug. 1 despite the allegations. It frustrates him.

And then there's next year, when he has to run for re-election. He's been advised to raise a lot of money and expect a well-funded opponent. That presents a problem.

"While the public appreciates an elected official who exposes corruption, contributors to the campaign become cautious, concerned the ones being exposed will retaliate with a vengeance," Sharp said. "Contributors want to support a sure winner, And that is the problem with exposing corruption."

(See Sen. Sharp's column on Page A5 for an explanation of the charter school system.)

 

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