For parents of Epic Charter School students, viewing their child’s grades or re-enrolling them for next semester is as easy as logging into the online “Parent Portal,” a Web-based resource that is an expected feature for a virtual school that offers students the chance to take classes completely online.
But when parents login to the portal from Epic’s main website, they are taken to a site operated by Five Points Technology Group, Inc., a Florida-based company managed by Elizabeth VanAcker, the wife of Epic co-founder Ben Harris, who is also the co-owner of the private company that oversees Epic charter schools and receives a portion of its state funding.
It’s unknown how much Epic pays for Five Points Technology’s services because the transaction does not appear in a line item register for Epic One on One, the virtual school operated by Harris’ company.
In an email to The Frontier, Epic spokeswoman Shelly Hickman said, “Epic Charter Schools does not have a contract or any financial relationship with Five Points. I asked and was informed that Five Points does work for the private charter management company.”
That private charter management company is called Epic Youth Services and is a for-profit company owned by Harris and David Chaney.
VanAcker was once listed as the principal officer for Community Strategies, the nonprofit doing business as Epic Charter Schools.
The connection between Epic and Five Points Technology is just one example of how some of the state funding sent to Epic moves to companies and nonprofits managed by Epic staff or individuals with close ties to the virtual charter school, according to a review of tax records, audits and invoices by The Frontier.
The fast growing school system — topping 28,000 students this school year — has drawn the attention of the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, where investigators claim the school has falsified enrollment records and that Chaney and Harris split at least $10 million in state funding that was sent to Epic.
Epic has denied any wrongdoing and no charges have been brought against the school or its employees.
Harris and Chaney have drawn the attention of law enforcement before, including 16 years ago in Florida when both were investigated for accepting trips and dinners from companies looking to contract with the Florida Department of Children and Families, an agency both men worked for.
At the time, VanAcker worked for the Florida State University Institute for Health and Human Services, according to an documents produced by the investigation. The investigation looked into communications between Harris and VanAcker concerning violations of the state’s bidding process but ultimately concluded there was insufficient evidence to establish criminal intent or a quid pro quo.
VanAcker did not respond to a phone call or email requesting comment.
Beyond Five Points Technology, Epic has business dealings with other organizations partly managed by Epic employees, including the California nonprofit Edlighten Learning Solutions, which once paid Epic Youth Services $103,000 for consulting work, according to an IRS form reviewed by The Frontier.
Edlighten Learning Solutions, which is the charter management organization of Oxford Prep Academy in California, lists Josh Brock, Epic’s chief financial officer as its own CFO, according to a filing with the state of California.
In 2016, California’s Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team performed an audit of Edlighten Learning Solutions and found the nonprofit used the same Oklahoma City address as Epic on several tax forms.
The audit also found that Epic leaders, including Brock and Harris, were included in several emails concerning financial decisions.
The audit claimed Epic once received as much as $60,000 a year from Edlighten Learning Services.
“This report provides sufficient evidence that affiliated and/or related party organizations were intentionally created to divert and launder funds from Oxford Preparatory Academy and conceal the use of these funds from the oversight agency,” the audit claimed.
Harris has denied any wrongdoing on his part related to Edlighten.
“There is no relationship past or present between Oxford Preparatory Academy or Edlighten Learning Solutions and Epic Charter School,” Harris wrote in a 2016 email to the Orange County Register. “In the past, prior to starting the authorization process with the Orange County Department of Education, some individuals affiliated with Epic Charter School provided services that were mentioned in the report.”
Two schools, two sponsors
Epic Youth Services oversees Epic One-on-One, a completely virtual school, and Epic Blended, a school that combines virtual and in-person instruction.
Tasked with overseeing Epic One on One is the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, while Epic’s separate blended school, with more than 10,000 students, is sponsored by Rose State College.
As its sponsor, Rose State College received more than $1.1 million in administrative fees last year, a welcome financial boost following years of declining enrollment and state funding.
Last year, Rose State College also signed a five-year contract with Epic to take over a former elementary school in Midwest City owned by the college.
Epic uses the building for a blended school site and covers maintenance and operational costs, according to a lease agreement obtained by The Frontier through an open records request.
“Epic is going to be wonderful to work with,” Rose State College Vice President of Administrative Services Kent Lashley told the campus newspaper last year. “They are going to make the building look a lot better, cleaner and safer; it’s been a great partnership all around.”
Lashley, who is listed as the primary contact on the university’s contract with Epic, is married to Amanda Lashley, Epic’s special education principal.
Hickman said the relationship between a Rose State College and Epic administrators is not a conflict of interest because neither can approve school contracts or have any oversight of school contracts.
Kent Lashley also said there is no conflict of interest.
“I am not the decision making authority for the college,” Lashley said in an email to The Frontier. “Our Board of Regents voted and approved the charter and provides oversight. The relationship has no bearing on the board’s decisions regarding Rose State College or it’s charter with Epic Charter Schools.”
“Of course there’s conflict of interests everywhere,” said Sen. Ron Sharp, R-Shawnee, who has been a vocal critic of Epic.
Sharp said his review of Epic One on One’s expenses makes him wonder what the for-profit company that receives millions from the school is doing with that money.
Epic charter schools lease office space at 50 Penn Place in Oklahoma City for $19,470 a month and an office on 122nd Street for $4,641 a month. Both leases are paid by Epic One on One, according to the line item register obtained by The Frontier.
More than $2.5 million was also spent on technology services out of the Epic One on One account.
Epic One on One’s line item register also shows payments for staff salaries, numerous education consultants, tutoring programs, and leases for testing spaces.
While Epic One on One appears to pay for the bulk of expenses typical of a virtual school, the school paid Epic Youth Services more than $21 million in 2018.
“A charter management organization is a private entity,” said Hickman, Epic’s spokeswoman and the school’s assistant superintendent of communication. “Private entities contract with whom they believe is going to provide the best services and they are allowed to do that because they are private companies.”
Emails to Harris and Chaney seeking comment were not returned.
While Hickman said she couldn’t speak to the finances of Epic Youth Services, she said the virtual charter school itself has taken steps to be as transparent as possible, especially after last year’s OSBI investigation was made public.
For example, Hickman said the school board for Epic recently hired an independent auditor that will report directly to the board.
“That is something that is very unique to schools and we hope that action shows policy members and the public how committed we are to transparency,” Hickman said.
While Hickman said Epic would be happy to respond to any recommendations from an audit in an effort to improve financial practices, the allegations made by OSBI have not resulted in any charges.
“We have been fully cooperating with any investigators and I think we have shown we can withstand this type of scrutiny,” Hickman said. “Words have been used (by the OSBI and the media) like ‘fraud,’ ‘pyramid scheme,’ and ‘racketeering,’ but there have been absolutely no findings to support those accusations.”
Growth and attention
Epic’s rapid growth and aggressive advertising campaign on television, radio and in newspapers has drawn attention in recent years, including criticism from some who question the school’s spending practices at a time when education funding is tight for most public schools.
Nearly a dozen bills have been filed this year related to virtual charter schools, including proposals to ban spending on advertisements, changes in attendance policies and giving the state Board of Education direct oversight over virtual charter schools.
House Speaker Charles McCall said the number of bills filed this year related to virtual charter schools is likely a product of lawmakers hearing from their constituents that more oversight may be needed.
“We are talking about state appropriated dollars and I think (the rules) should apply across the board to everyone,” said McCall, R-Atoka.
Shortly after the end of last year’s legislative session, when reports emerged of OSBI investigators searching the documents of Epic officials, some lawmakers were already predicting that the 2020 session would bring an increased focus on how virtual schools report their spending.
“Since the investigation of OSBI on Epic schools, I think it’s brought to light some of the concerns some of us already had, and others now are getting concerned about it,” said Sen. Dewayne Pemberton, R-Muskogee, speaking at an event in Tahlequah. “So I think you’re going to see a big push for a lot of legislation as we’re going to tamp down on Epic schools over the course of the next several weeks.”
But Epic has been aggressive in protecting its interest at the state Capitol as its founders, lobbyist and more than a dozen other individuals with ties to the school have donated nearly $200,000 to political campaigns in recent years.
Recipients included State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister and Attorney General Mike Hunter.
Epic’s lobbyist, Robert Stem, a former Epic board member who also represents other clients, spent nearly $1,300 last year on meals for legislators.
Despite the ongoing investigation, Epic has been aggressive in responding to criticism, which includes filing a lawsuit against Sen. Sharp, who has expressed his criticism of Epic and filed bills to alter the way virtual charters are managed.
In the lawsuit, Epic accuses Sharp of libel and slander through various statements to the media.
Following the lawsuit, Epic Superintendent Bart Banfield emailed multiple state senators writing, “should Mr. Sharp at any time retract the false statements detailed in the lawsuit, our board would likely vote to withdraw the lawsuit.”
Sharp told The Frontier he has no intention of retracting any statements he has made concerning Epic.
But even amid the scrutiny Epic has received in recent years, student enrollment continues to grow.
Epic leaders said their growth is proof its model is desired by many Oklahoma parents, especially those with students who are at risk of dropping out of a traditional school because of problems with academics, mental health or bullying.
“These families came to us because something wasn’t right in their previous school,” Hickman said.