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Education
Epic Charter Schools' expansion into Texas in limbo amid new revelations about criminal investigation

Epic Charter Schools’ expansion into Texas has been halted just a few weeks before the start of the new school year.

On June 5, Epic publicly announced it had a deal with iSchool Virtual Academy of Texas, or iSVA, a public charter school, to offer students there in grades 3-12 its blended learning model, which combines online and in-person instruction. iSchool Virtual Academy’s governing board approved the contract with Epic on June 14.

But the charter school’s operator told the Tulsa World it needed approval from the Texas Education Agency, which is Texas’ state department of education, and it has decided to withdraw the contract for consideration amid new revelations about a criminal investigation into Epic.

“ResponsiveEd provides a quality web-based education to online learners through iSchool Virtual Academy of Texas, a state-accredited public charter school. We entered into an agreement with Epic Charter Schools in order to offer additional educational options to our iSVA students. As required by state law, the contract was submitted to our authorizer, the Texas Education Agency, for approval. In light of recent allegations regarding Epic Charter Schools, the contract has been withdrawn,” said Billy Rudolph, a spokesman for Responsive Education Solutions. “Any potential future agreements will not be discussed until the release of a public statement from the state of Oklahoma deeming all allegations erroneous.”

Responsive Education Solutions is a nonprofit based in Lewisville, Texas, that serves more than 20,000 students on more than 70 campuses across Texas and Arkansas.

The website and social media platforms on Facebook and Instagram that Epic had rolled out in early June for Epic Charter Schools Texas have all been taken down.

In a prepared statement, co-founder David Chaney said Epic remains hopeful its Texas expansion efforts will proceed.

“The contract between EPIC and Responsive Education remains in place, though the partnership will not be operational during the fall semester as originally planned,” Chaney said. “We hope to move forward once our program is cleared by investigators, as we believe it will be.”

The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation is looking into allegations of embezzlement, obtaining money by false pretenses and racketeering at Epic, the state’s largest online school system.

And as the Tulsa World previously reported, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Department of Education’s law enforcement arm have also been probing Epic Charter Schools’ student enrollment practices and finances for the past several years.

Two weeks ago, Gov. Kevin Stitt requested an investigative audit of Epic Charter Schools and its related entities by the Oklahoma State Auditor and Inspector’s Office.

In Oklahoma, Epic’s statewide virtual charter school, called Epic One-on-One, as well as three Blended Learning Centers that blend online and in-person instruction in Tulsa and Oklahoma City, enrolled more than 20,000 students in 2018-19.

Epic also operates in Orange County, California.

The deal in Texas may be the second expansion deal that news of the criminal investigation could have jeopardized. Earlier this year, Epic had also attempted an expansion into Arkansas to provide online education there beginning this fall.

In mid-February, the school board in the Pulaski County Special School District in Little Rock authorized district leaders to enter contract negotiations with Epic to be the academic content and technology provider for that district’s new statewide virtual school.

After the Tulsa World first broke the story in late February that OSBI and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of the Inspector General were investigating Epic, the Arkansas school district leaders indicated they had moved on. They ultimately struck a deal with a vendor out of Utah called Tech Trep Academy.


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Business
Tax-free weekend saved Oklahomans $7.4 million last year. The holiday starts today, and retailers are ready.

Gallery: Oklahoma's sales tax holiday starts today. Here's everything you need to know for this weekend


Two decades in the retail industry have taught Rich Kerr that preparation is key when it comes to shopping holidays.

Kerr, general manager of the J.C. Penney at Woodland Hills Mall, said his store has hired 38 additional people to help staff the annual tax-free weekend.

From 12:01 a.m. Friday through 11:59 p.m. Sunday, shoppers can avoid paying sales tax on certain items.

Most clothing and shoes that cost less than $100 are exempt from state, city, county and local municipality sales tax. That does not include accessories, special clothing or footwear designed specifically for athletic activity.

“We expect the crowds to be pretty much on par with Black Friday,” he said.

Shoppers will be flocking in for back-to-school deals on clothing, school uniforms and backpacks.

The tax-free weekend was approved by the state Legislature in 2007 as an effort to benefit both consumers and retailers.

Last year, Oklahomans saved approximately $7.4 million dollars in taxes during the tax-free weekend, according to the Oklahoma Tax Commission.

“Oklahomans seem to look forward to the sales-tax holiday,” said Paula Ross, a tax commission spokeswoman. “Last year they took advantage of the many sales merchants have over this weekend.”

J.C. Penney will have extended hours throughout the weekend and a number of specials, including 25% off Nike and other brands and some buy-one-get-one-free deals on jeans.

“This is great for us because it gives us a lift and gives the customers a lift and gets everyone in the right mindset coming out of summer and getting ready for fall,” Kerr said.

Kerr ran the J.C. Penney in Moore for about three years before taking over the Woodlands Hills location. Prior to that, he spent 18 years with Best Buy.

Kerr said that online shopping has increased significantly but hasn’t taken away from the crowds who come into the store to make their purchases.

“Especially with the kids clothes, you want to get them in here to try them on,” he said.

Shoppers can still take advantage of the tax break when shopping online. If a qualified order is made and paid for during the exemption period, it is tax-exempt, even if delivery is after the fact.

While the bulk of back-to-school supplies are not part of the tax-free weekend, many retailers, like Walmart, understand that the two go hand-in-hand.

“We know sales tax holidays are important to customers and are looking forward to the busy time in our stores,” said Anne Hatfield, director of communications, Walmart Public Affairs. “Parents and students can stock up on school uniforms, first day outfits, shoes and more, all part of Oklahoma’s tax free savings.”



Crime-and-courts
Defense releases video from ex-gubernatorial candidate's shooting of process server

A former Oklahoma gubernatorial candidate who is jailed on felony charges related to a shooting and alleged threats against the University of Tulsa pleaded not guilty to the charges on Thursday, and his attorney released surveillance video of the shooting.

The Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office charged Christopher Jonathan Barnett on July 25 with threatening an act of violence, one day after his arrest for shooting a process server at his south Tulsa residence. Prosecutors on Tuesday charged Barnett, who initially was accused of shooting with intent to kill, with one count of assault and battery with a deadly weapon.

In a court appearance Thursday morning, Special Judge David Guten set Barnett’s preliminary hearing in both cases for Aug. 26.

Brendan McHugh, one of Barnett’s attorneys, notified Guten on Thursday that he filed a motion asking that Barnett be considered immune from prosecution under Oklahoma’s Stand Your Ground Law, which both Guten and Assistant District Attorney Mark Collier said would need to be presented before Barnett’s trial judge.

After Special Judge April Seibert reviewed video footage of the shooting and prosecutors asked her to reconsider her decision on Friday to set bail for Barnett at $1 million, she determined Monday that he should be held without the option of posting bond.

McHugh released two videos of the incident to the media after Thursday’s proceedings. Neither video clip has audio, but one video shows the process server speaking at the front door, leaning in at one point possibly to better hear the conversation.

At about 40 seconds into the clip, the process server walks away from the door to the front yard but turns around while he is standing on Barnett’s lawn. While he is speaking from the lawn, a shot is fired at the 51-second mark on the video.

Trey Barnett, Chris Barnett’s husband, testified during Monday’s bond hearing and said he believed the videos Seibert saw had been altered to remove an attempt by the process server to goad Chris Barnett to fight outside their house.

The Tulsa World showed Collier the videos McHugh provided to the media, and Collier said the clips are identical to what Seibert viewed before rendering her bond decision. Collier also said the process server had an audio recording of the encounter that matched what could be seen in the videos.

A probable cause affidavit alleges that Barnett Google-searched “Can you legally shoot a process server?” though Trey Barnett said that search occurred around the time the latter had a separate altercation with a different process server.

Collier on Monday said police had discovered evidence that Chris Barnett at one point had said the only good process server was a dead one.

Guten declined Barnett’s request to reconsider his bond, saying he could not change what Seibert decided unless new information was available. Barnett, in response, said there was new information because prosecutors opted to charge him with assault and battery with a deadly weapon rather than shooting with intent to kill, the complaint on which he initially was jailed.

“The facts are the same,” Guten told Barnett. “It’s just a different charge.”

In the threats case, McHugh argued that the content of his client’s website, Transparency for Oklahomans, is legally protected speech under the First Amendment. He filed motions saying judges in other courts have reviewed Barnett’s writings and determined they were not illegal.

An affidavit in that case details statements on a page titled “How would Chris Barnett take down TU?” which includes what Barnett said were “hypothetical” comments about shooting people as they left TU football games at halftime. The page identifies a TU professor and administrator who are also named in litigation the Barnetts filed against TU following Trey Barnett’s suspension from the school.

Tulsa Police Detective Max Ryden said during Monday’s hearing that the statements on the website were concerning, and he told Seibert the witnesses he’s spoken to have expressed fear of Chris Barnett.


Sports
College football: 'Tis the season — Practices begin at OSU, TU; OU hosts annual fan day Friday

After a taste of college football with media days two weeks ago, the season started in earnest Thursday, as Oklahoma State and Tulsa both hit the practice field for the first time.

The Cowboys opened practice looking for a new quarterback, while the Hurricane welcomed back a familiar face from last season who had been thought to be lost to a career-ending injury.

OU doesn’t have its first practice until Saturday, but the school hosts its annual Meet the Sooners Day from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Friday.

Season openers

TU at Michigan State

6 p.m. Aug. 30

TV: FS1; Radio: KXBL-99.5

OSU at Oregon State

9:30 p.m. Aug. 30

TV: FS1; Radio: KFAQ-1170

Houston at OU

6:30 p.m. Sept. 1

TV: ABC; Radio: KTBZ-1430

Inside sports

OSU starts its quarterback battle as fall practice opens.

TU’s Cristian Williams was on the field for the first day of practice after overcoming a potentially career-ending injury.

OU has its fan day Friday; on Thursday the Sooners were picked fourth in the Amway Coaches Top 25.