Rose State College, a public, two-year institution in Midwest City that has experienced years of enrollment and funding declines, is positioning itself as a haven for charter schools dissatisfied with their current authorizer or facing financial struggles.

The move could allow the college to receive millions in additional tax dollars and alter the education landscape of Oklahoma City. 

In 2017, Rose State College became the sponsor of Epic blended school, which is part of the Epic virtual school system that a state auditor recently accused of serious financial mismanagement

As Epic’s authorizer, which is tasked with providing oversight and acting as a fiscal agent, Rose State College has received more than $3.7 million in tax dollars from sponsorship fees, which are 3 percent of the state education funds sent to Epic. 

In recent months, the college has had conversations with at least four other charter schools about becoming their authorizer — including Santa Fe South Schools, a 3,500-student charter school system currently authorized by the Oklahoma City Public Schools district. 

Chris Brewster, superintendent of Santa Fe South, acknowledged he has had conversations with Rose State College, but said no agreement is in place. 

Brewster also said he doesn’t believe his school will renew its contract with the Oklahoma City district after it expires at the end of the school year. 

“I think we are viewed [by Oklahoma City schools] as those pesky charters that take too much time and energy,” Brewster told The Frontier. “They just don’t seem interested in us and … it’s time to go find a different dancing partner.”

Officials with Oklahoma City schools declined to comment.

Brewster presented a plan to Rose State College earlier this year to take on Santa Fe South and Sovereign Community School, a small charter school in Oklahoma City that focuses on Indeiginous students. The plan called for Sovereign to merge with Santa Fe South. 

Sovereign Community School, which had its charter application initially denied by Oklahoma City Public Schools, appealed to the state Board of Education, which accepted the role as authorizer last year. 

Brewster said the merger talks are on hold but that Santa Fe South continues to explore options for a new authorizer. 

While no agreement is yet in place between Rose State College and Santa Fe South, the college is also considering an application from a proposed charter school named W.K. Jackson Leadership Academy, which is currently a private religious school operated by St. John Missionary Baptist Church in Oklahoma City. 

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In May, Rose State College also heard a presentation from Dove Science Academy to become its new authorizer, according to a board of regents meeting agenda. 

A non-district authorizer may have less incentive to ensure the stability of a charter school and may not consider the impact to local schools in accepting new agreements, said State Sen. Carri Hicks, D-Oklahoma City, who has filed legislation in recent years related to charter school authorization.

“If you don’t have any skin in the game like a district does, then you have fewer reasons to be dedicated to those fiduciary responsibilities that a school district would,” Hicks said.

Hicks said an authroizer like Rose State College is not responsible for taking on the students from a charter school that might have to close because of financial mismanagement.

“They have no role in returning them to a learning environment but their home district has to be the ones to figure it out,” Hicks said.

A local district may also limit the growth of a charter, considering its impact on its own schools, which has been a source of conflict between the Oklahoma City district and Santa Fe South.

But that is one reason why Brewster said he is seeking a different authorizer.

Acting as the sponsor for Santa Fe South could be a lucrative arrangement for Rose State College, worth more than $700,000 annually, according to current sponsorship fees paid to the Oklahoma City district. 

A student walks on the Rose State College campus in Midwest City. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

Rose State College has struggled with enrollment declines in recent years, including a drop of 5.2 percent in 2019, according to the college’s latest financial audit

In that same audit, the college’s partnership with Epic was highlighted as a needed source of revenue.

From 2018 to 2019, Rose State’s cut of Epic’s state funding increased $528,000, a reflection of Epic’s enrollment gains. 

Considerations by Rose State College to take on additional charter schools comes at a time when the state auditor recently accused the college of providing poor oversight of Epic. 

The college told state auditors that it performs a simple review of the annual audits Epic sends without any additional questions.

“Epic sends their audited financial statements to the college every year. As their audited statements have been fairly clean, we have requested no follow up review of transactions or documentation,” Rose State College officials wrote to the state auditor’s office

Rose State College President Jeanie Webb, along with board of regent members Gregory Smith (center) and Brandon Clabes, listen to a report on an investigative audit into Epic virtual charter schools. BEN FELDER/The Frontier
Rose State College President Jeanie Webb, left, and regents Gregory Smith, center, and Brandon Clabes, listen to a presentation on a recent state audit into Epic charter schools on Oct. 21, 2020. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

The Rose State College board of regents heard a presentation of the Epic audit findings last month from Brenda Holt, an official with the state auditor’s office who recommended the college review its contract with Epic to see if it had been broken in any way, which would be grounds for ending its role as authorizer. 

“We basically felt like oversight was weak at every level,” Holt told the regents during an Oct. 21 meeting. “It was almost like every organization was passing the buck.”

College president Jeanie Webb called the audit “eye opening.”

“Until you got called in I don’t think we realized some of the things,” Webb told Holt, even though reports of Epic’s financial mismanagement and its investigation by state law enforcement officials had been well-publicized over the past two years. 

Earlier this year, an Oklahoma County judge denied a request by Rose State College to participate in a case involving the state auditor’s pursuit of financial records from the private management company that oversees Epic, further indication that Rose State College was aware of problems the state auditor had with Epic. 

In an emailed statement to The Frontier, Travis Hurst, Rose State College’s associate vice president of academic affairs, said the college had fulfilled its requirements as an authorizer of Epic.

Hurst also pointed to the creation of a new charter authorization office, which was created in January to oversee all charters authorized by the college.  

Authorizing more charter schools would fit with Rose State College’s mission “of providing educational opportunities to a diverse population,” Hurst said. 

“These schools also wanted to partner with us on an early college and college completion program, designed to help students earn college credit, reduce debt, and potentially graduate with an associate’s degree upon high school completion,” Hurst said in his statement.