In my last post, I committed to telling you by Friday what Stitt has to do with the Epic debacle. I didn’t even start this post till 10 am Friday, and I fear I spent Friday night feeling pretty poorly, and then spent the weekend in OKC with my friends eating Turkey and watching The Rings of Power.
I spent some time away from the topic, partly from feeling discouraged about some of the dearth of quality coverage on the topic, and partly because I could only get one real reporter (I reached out to several, and only one responded, shout out to Jennifer Palmer with Education Watch btw for giving me some valuable information, she responded to my query very quickly and with the information I requested, she is the real deal). So, my apologies for my unprofessionalism, but I hope this post will be worth the wait. Here goes.
I’ve written in some detail about how the Epic Charter School turned out to be allegedly a pyramid scheme of “ghost students with your child” (and Johnny Cash is no longer around to sing the song) that was getting paid double tax payer money to make a couple clever entrepreneurs rich. I’ll leave that post here if you haven’t read it or wish for a recap.
While spending time with one of my best and wisest friends, I asked him what he knew about Epic. It turns out that is where he takes his son. He had great praise for the school. He said he had asked his son’s teacher about the scandals, and her response was that there are investigations every few years because the state is jealous of their incredible success rates. So, while I’m still going to blog about them, and frankly will likely still write a more negative than positive post, I want to share that at least one parent is a strong fan, and reports that the school has been extremely beneficial to his son. And who knows? By the end of this the Tired Blogger may prove to be wrong.
I gotta admit, this one may end up being over my head. I guess if nothing else I will share what I’ve found in my rather random investigation and hope the readers are forgiving (or better yet, that they know something I don’t and share some information).
The first thing I looked at was the money. People always say if you follow the money you will find the truth, so I started with who is getting campaign contributions.
And yes, Stitt did receive some contributions from them, both in 2018 and 2022. But frankly, he was quite a ways down the list of folks who received money in campaign coffers, and honestly, the person on the top of the list (embarrassingly enough) is Joy Hoffmeister. So if that is the connection, she should be implicated too.
So why are so many news articles jumping up and down insisting Stitt is connected? Is this just partisan politics of the papers? Has your Tired Blogger been duped (again)?
I’ve talked at length about the negatives of Epic, and I won’t add more here unless it pertains to Stitt. Nothing is perfectly bad, and I can tell you my friends discussion and finding their website for their student news web site truly impressed me. So…while there is (allegedly) racketeering, fraud, and some horrible accounting, there is also some high quality teaching going on (even if only in these instances). Here is that website if you are interested in looking: https://epicnewsnetwork.org/
Lets see if we can figure out why so many are angry with Governor Stitt about Epic.
The first site is admittedly biased, but the facts quoted are valid. The piece focuses mainly on how Stitt received about $20,000 in campaign contributions from them. I don’t see this myself as important evidence against Stitt, 1) because the dollar amount is fairly small on the scale of lobbying, 2) my candidate Joy Hoffmeister received significantly more money than that, and 3) both Stitt and Hoffmeister returned their contributions to the troubled school district to avoid accusations of conflict of interest.
Here is the information salient to corruptkevin.com.
“Nearly $46 million in taxpayer dollars were sent to Epic Youth Services – even though it had zero employees besides its two founders during most of the time it was receiving funds. A scathing state audit of Epic found that the company had even sent $200,000 worth of Oklahoma tax money to one of its schools in California. The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation further alleged the company was a vehicle for owners Ben Harris and David Chaney to illegally take profits from taxpayer dollars, receiving $10 million in profits from the company that managed the charter school.
“What was the response from the governor? Stitt protected Epic Schools by removing John Harrington as the president of the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board after he initiated contract termination proceedings against Epic and challenged two board members about their conflicts of interest with the company. (One of the members on the oversight board Harrington was trying to remove was a family member of Epic’s founder.)
“After Harrington’s removal, the termination proceedings against Epic were delayed for months and ultimately abandoned in April following a settlement agreement that required Epic to be more transparent. It did not do nearly enough to punish the company or hold it accountable for its misuse of taxpayer dollars.
“Only months after Epic was let off the hook, the company is embroiled in controversy again. In her December 2021 resignation letter, the vice president of Epic’s governing board, Kathren Stehno, accused the company of improperly withdrawing students for truancy, failing to notify board members of key information and handing out “extremely large and unapproved” staff bonuses.”
My analysis of all this needs to be put into context with what I have already written. In case you need a refresher or just want to read it for the first time, I’ll post it here. Go ahead and read it! I’ll be here when you get back.
I’m especially proud of the last one. I really felt I was getting close to the smoking gun. But I believe most of the people I shared the post with just thought I was a spammer I don’t know why.
The Oklahoman gives more detail on the situation after the arrest of Epic’s founders:
The department of education really should have been on that issue,” Stitt said last month during a television interview. But in 2020, as Hofmeister urged the Oklahoma State Board of Education to downgrade Epic’s accreditation status after a critical state audit, it was Stitt’s office that fought to protect the scandal-ridden school.
The Oklahoman sheds some light on the subject. Back in July, Stitt and Hoffmeister were butting heads over who was responsible for the debacle. Hoffmeister had called a state school board meeting for Nov. 13, 2020. Days before, she received a phone call from Stitt chief of staff, Bond Payne.
“Bond Payne called directly … he was notably agitated about my recommendation to put Epic on probation,” Hofmeister told The Oklahoman when asked about the call. “He expressed confusion, concern, asked why I would do that, (claiming Epic) might lose students.”
Why should the governor care if they lose students? Surely he doesn’t have a political agenda? Isn’t the mantra that we want parents to have school choice? And how can they make intelligent choices if they aren’t informed? What do these people have to hide? Surely a Tired Blogger isn’t the only one asking these questions.
The Oklahoman goes on to state that this is not merely “he said/she said.” The conversation was verified by “One Education Department staff member who was in the room during the call, which was on speaker phone at the conference table in Hofmeister’s office, confirmed the details to The Oklahoman. Two other department staff members confirmed Hofmeister told them about the call shortly after.” On top of this, a staff member in the governor’s office verified the conversation speaking anonymously for fear of retribution.
I wish I had an inside source of my own that was willing to speak anonymously…
“About the time Hofmeister says Stitt’s office asked her to hold off on her push to put Epic on probation, the governor also removed a member of the state virtual charter schools board who was advocating for termination proceedings against the school.
“John Harrington, the removed board member, had also recently raised concerns about two other board members who had personal ties to the founders of Epic.
“At the time, the governor’s office said Stitt had simply decided not to renew Harrington, who was a Gov. Mary Fallin appointee after his term expired. The governor wanted to select his own person, his office said.”
But this doesn’t track with a report from The Tulsa World.
“Gov. Kevin Stitt on Friday removed the president of the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board who recently led the initiation of termination proceedings against Epic Charter Schools and challenged two other board members about potential conflicts of interest with Epic.
“John Harrington was notified Friday morning by Stitt’s newly appointed secretary of education that his service on the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board was over effective immediately.
“Stitt’s office told the Tulsa World on Friday evening that the governor has appointed the former president of a private Christian school in Edmond in Harrington’s place.”
Even if what Stitt claims is true, the timing is terrible. Harrington had just called for the recusal of two board members who had ties to Epic.
“This fact is disturbingly ironic given that two days later I am now the one no longer on the Board or voting on Epic-related matters. Whether by design, or mere coincidence, I do not believe this will help restore the public’s confidence in this matter,” Harrington said in a written statement.
“I am concerned with the direction that we are headed. It is widely known that there are concerns about the relationship between Epic and two of the virtual charter board members. However, despite these concerns, these individuals remain on the Board.”
“In Harrington’s place, Stitt has appointed Brandon Tatum, former president of Oklahoma Christian Academy and now founder and CEO of CONNECTedu and chair of the National Christian School Association Board of Trustees.”
“Asked about whether Stitt is concerned about the potential conflicts of interest on the board, Walters responded: “We’re not going to comment on that. Those are appointments that are out of our control. We have one appointee to the board.”
“Asked whether Stitt’s office had spoken to Tatum about Epic before his appointment, Walters said: “We just made sure there were no ties there, and we wanted to make sure everything is transparent and there’s accountability there and everything is carried out in a fair manner.”
Last of all, the most damning thing I’ve been able to find. Education Watch gives one tiny detail that, connected with all the other “coincidences,” leads me to believe that either there is criminal collusion between the administration and certain Christian private schools, or incompetence amounting to criminal negligence.
“The call for an audit stems from a finding in the 2020 Epic audit which showed the online charter school was miscoding expenses to avoid penalties for exceeding the state’s 5% cap on administrative spending.
“Stitt, in his request, asked auditors to identify all sources of revenue flowing into the department, determine if the revenues were properly allocated and expenditures were legal, and determine whether the department and school districts are properly coding items in the Oklahoma Cost Accounting System.
“It’s likely to be one of the deepest dives into the department’s finances, ever. However, Hofmeister says the department has undergone “more than 20 financial, compliance and programmatic review audits” in the past 6 1/2 years. And, she said, Secretary of Education Ryan Walters approves each expenditure over $25,000 on a weekly basis.”
So…audit after audit, many of them specifically geared to find the dirt on public schools, especially Tulsa Public…and everything over $25 k for the department has to run across Walter’s desk and be approved? Then, how could he NOT know what was going on with Epic? Is it possible that he was so distracted with his other three full-time jobs he just let slip that HALF A BILLION DOLLARS of Oklahoma taxpayer money was slipping through the cracks? What would we find if we audited his grade books?
Between 2008 and 2015 we cut Oklahoma education by 33%. No, that isn’t on Stitt. But I read about all this money changing hands, while we are spending less on education. If it was producing results I’d laud our state for efficiency. But the numbers don’t add up. Where is all the money going? Who is getting rich off of all this graft?