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Accreditation, state funding to continue for Epic Charter Schools during ongoing investigation

OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma State Department of Education is proceeding as normal with accreditation and state funding for Oklahoma’s largest online school operator, despite ongoing state and federal law enforcement investigations.

At its monthly meeting, the State Board of Education approved Epic Charter Schools’ accreditation for 2019-2020 along with the full slate of public schools across the state.

Afterward, State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister told reporters she had consulted with Ricky Adams, the director of the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, about whether Epic should continue to be included in the distribution of state aid dollars for the new fiscal year when monthly payments begin on Aug. 1.

“The word we heard back (from OSBI) was, ‘Keep moving as normal,’ ” Hofmeister said.

Hofmeister also said her state agency needs greater powers to better oversee and hold virtual schools to account in her first in-depth remarks on the matter. She said she will continue to advocate for legislation that would bring one of Epic’s sponsors, the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, under the auspices of the state Department of Education.

And, she thinks her agency could keep closer tabs on questions involving virtual schools’ board members and payments to vendors if lawmakers gave it the same subpoena power that more than 50 other state agencies already have.

Last week, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation filed public court documents revealing allegations of embezzlement, obtaining money by false pretenses and racketeering at Epic, which is the state’s fastest-growing online school system.

OSBI is actively investigating allegations that Epic has wrongly obtained millions of taxpayer dollars by leaving students on its rolls long after they stopped attending and enrolling students from home schools and private schools who received little or no instruction by Epic.

That reportedly included the so-called “dual enrollment” of many students in both a private school and Epic, without the knowledge or consent of their parents.

On Friday, Gov. Kevin Stitt requested an investigative audit of Epic and its related entities by State Auditor Cindy Byrd and Hofmeister said she supported the move.

Asked why the request wasn’t made sooner, Hofmeister responded that as the Tulsa World’s reporting revealed, her department had been cooperating for years with investigators from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and from the Office of Inspector General, which is the law enforcement arm of the U.S. Department of Education, and “didn’t want to impede” those investigations.

State Sen. Ron Sharp, R-Shawnee, had requested that the state halt payments to Epic, amid new revelations about the law enforcement investigations. Sharp himself has publicly questioned how Epic could have received millions of dollars in state funding the last two years for 3,000-4,000 students in middle and high school when the Blended Learning Centers in which they are enrolled can only accommodate students in early education and elementary school grades.

Oklahoma Aquarium adds new shark to lineup

Swink Public Schools loses accreditation, consolidated with Fort Towson

OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma State Board of Education on Thursday approved the mandatory annexation of Swink Public Schools with its neighboring district of Fort Towson after several board members expressed reservations and concerns.

Swink’s lone remaining board member and a former lawmaker from the area made impassioned pleas to save the school, whose governance has been crippled by the resignation of its other two local school board members in June.

Lewis Collins, a retired longtime Choctaw County sheriff and Oklahoma state trooper, joined the Swink school board only five months ago. He explained how he had spent the past month desperately trying to address the concerns raised later in June by the administration of State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister to avoid the consolidation of Swink, which serves 140 students.

“You guys are going to cut our legs off and tell us to jump a six-wire fence. Without a board member, we can’t meet one stipulation you’ve given us,” Collins said.

Collins also disputed the accuracy of three of the main concerns raised by state education officials:

• He said the district’s insurance policy had not lapsed on July 1, as claimed.

• In response to concerns about student transportation, he explained that the school’s leased bus is picked up every summer by its owner so it can be serviced and then returned in time for classes to begin in August.

• And he provided copies of Swink’s bank statements showing balances totalling far more than the $151,000 state education officials said the district had for operations.

Collins and Randall Erwin, a former state lawmaker who worked previously as a school superintendent and state accreditation officer at the state Department of Education, told the board they and current legislators representing the area had submitted requests asking Gov. Kevin Stitt to appoint at least one replacement board member.

At least two members would have been required so the Swink board could hold public meetings once again to handle the district’s financial affairs.

Erwin said they were told Hofmeister herself had advised Stitt not to act on the requests.

Although she did not specifically deny the accusation, Hofmeister said Stitt’s own legal counsel determined there is nothing currently in state statute that would allow the governor to make such an appointment.

Board members raise issues

All of the board members present asked pointed questions and expressed concerns, including why the state Department of Education’s financial figures for Swink didn’t match the bank statements presented by Collins.

Board member Brian Bobek of Oklahoma City asked whether anyone in the Swink community was interested in serving on the board, and Collins responded that they had submitted multiple names of those willing to serve to the Governor’s Office, to no avail.

Board member Carlisha Williams Bradley of Tulsa asked if it would be possible for the board to pass a resolution asking the Governor’s Office to appoint someone to the Swink school board. Hofmeister responded that the board could, “but I don’t know if that’s something that’s productive, if we’re clashing against the start of the school year.”

Bobek called allegations that the state’s regional accreditation officers had not returned calls and messages left by Collins and Erwin “unacceptable.”

Of the annexation, he asked: “Once something like this takes place, can it be undone at a later time?” Hofmeister responded no.

Board member Kurt Bollenbach of Kingfisher said the Education Department needs to work with lawmakers to ensure there is a clear legal path for the method of filling local school board vacancies when such serious situations arise.

All state board members except Hofmeister are Stitt appointees.

Outside of the meeting, the Tulsa World asked Stitt’s office whether it was true that Hofmeister had advised the governor not to appoint a member to the Swink school board and whether it is true the governor’s lawyers believe there is no legal basis for the governor to fill a vacancy on a local school by appointment.

A spokeswoman said the governor’s legal team determined the law was unclear and said the Governor’s Office is committed to working with state lawmakers to clarify how school board vacancies should be filled.

“The governor’s legal team and the State Department of Education’s legal team consulted with each other in advance,” Stitt Communications Director Baylee Lakey said in a statement. “The clearest path for this unique event was for the state School Board and state superintendent to address the matter. The governor supports the state School Board’s decision to bring 147 students officially under the leadership of Fort Towson in Choctaw County.”

Switch to Fort Towson

State education officials had initially recommended Swink be consolidated with a neighboring school district called Valliant. Hofmeister explained that the move to recommend Swink be annexed instead with Fort Towson was in response to direct feedback from Swink residents and parents, as well as the 70 percent failure by voters in a voluntary school annexation vote taken in May.

Collins thanked the board for that switch and asked them to investigate and consider sanctions against Valliant Superintendent Craig Wall, who Collins accused of trying to submarine Swink for his own district’s benefit during the last year, when he also agreed to serve as Swink’s superintendent.

“Here Swink stands innocent. You all got rules about a superintendent who would do harm to a school district. He needs to be up here, not Swink,” Collins said. “He’s walking free, and we lost our school.”

Hofmeister vowed to follow-up, saying: “There are comments made that should move us to a very thorough look at what the auditors come back with. And the agency and board could take steps with certified individuals.”

Wall did not respond to the Tulsa World’s request for comment.

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U.S. government will execute inmates for first time since 2003

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department said Thursday the federal government will resume executing death-row inmates for the first time since 2003, ending an informal moratorium even as the nation sees a broad shift away from capital punishment.

Attorney General William Barr instructed the Bureau of Prisons to schedule executions starting in December for five men, all accused of murdering children. Although the death penalty remains legal in 30 states, executions on the federal level are rare.

“The Justice Department upholds the rule of law — and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system,” Barr said.

The move is likely to stir up fresh interest in an issue that has largely lain dormant in recent years, adding a new front to the culture battles that President Donald Trump already is waging on matters such as abortion and immigration in the lead-up to the 2020 elections.

Most Democrats oppose capital punishment. Vice President Joe Biden this week shifted to call for the elimination of the federal death penalty after years of supporting it.

By contrast, Trump has spoken often — and sometimes wistfully — about capital punishment and his belief that executions serve as both an effective deterrent and appropriate punishment for some crimes, including mass shootings and the killings of police officers.

“I think they should very much bring the death penalty into vogue,” Trump said last year after 11 people were gunned down in a Pittsburgh synagogue.

He’s suggested repeatedly that the U.S. might be better off if it adopted harsh drug laws like those embraced by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, under whom thousands of drug suspects have been killed by police.

Trump was a vocal proponent of the death penalty for decades before taking office, most notably in 1989 when he took out full-page advertisements in New York City newspapers urging elected officials to “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY” following the rape of a jogger in Central Park. “If the punishment is strong,” he wrote then, “the attacks on innocent people will stop.”

Five Harlem teenagers were convicted in the Central Park case but had their convictions vacated years later after another man confessed to the rape. More than a decade after their exoneration, the city agreed to pay the so-called Central Park Five $41 million, a settlement Trump blasted as “outrageous.”

The death penalty remains legal in 30 states, but only a handful regularly conduct executions. Texas has executed 108 prisoners since 2010, far more than any other state.

Executions on the federal level have long been rare. The government has put to death only three defendants since restoring the federal death penalty in 1988, the most recent of which occurred in 2003, when Louis Jones was executed for the 1995 kidnapping, rape and murder of a young female soldier.

In 2014, following a botched state execution in Oklahoma, President Barack Obama directed the Justice Department to conduct a broad review of capital punishment and issues surrounding lethal injection drugs.

That review has been completed, Barr said Thursday, and it has cleared the way for executions to resume.

Barr approved a new procedure for lethal injections that replaces the three-drug cocktail previously used in federal execution with a single drug, pentobarbital. This is similar to the procedure used in several states, including Georgia, Missouri and Texas.

Though there hasn’t been a federal execution since 2003, the Justice Department has continued to approve death penalty prosecutions and federal courts have sentenced defendants to death.

Robert Dunham, the executive director of the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center, said he was concerned the process for resuming executions was rushed.

“The federal government hasn’t carried out any executions in 15 years and so that raises serious questions about the ability to carry out the executions properly,” he said.

There are 61 people on the federal death row, according to Death Row USA, a quarterly report of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Some of the highest-profile inmates on federal death row include Dylann Roof, who killed nine black church members during a Bible study session in 2015 at a South Carolina church, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who set off bombs near the Boston Marathon’s finish line in 2013, killing three people and wounding more than 260.

About 6 in 10 Americans favor the death penalty, according to the General Social Survey, a major trends survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago. While a majority continue to express support for the death penalty, the share has declined steadily since the 1990s, when nearly three-quarters were in favor.

The inmates who will be executed are: Danny Lee, who was convicted of killing a family of three, including an 8-year-old; Lezmond Mitchell, who beheaded a 63-year-old woman and her 9-year-old granddaughter; Wesley Ira Purkey, who raped and murdered a 16-year-old girl and killed an 80-year-old woman; Alfred Bourgeois, who tortured, molested and then beat his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter to death; and Dustin Lee Honken, who killed five people, including two children.

The federal government would join eight states that have executed inmates or are planning to do so this year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Texas is far and away the leading state when it comes to using the death penalty, with 563 executions since capital punishment resumed in the U.S. in 1977 after a 10-year pause.

In the past 20 years, the Supreme Court has banned the execution of people who are intellectually disabled or were under 18 when they killed someone. But even as the number of people who are sentenced to death and are executed has declined steadily for two decades, the justices have resisted any wholesale reconsideration of the constitutionality of capital punishment.

The five-justice conservative majority has complained about delaying tactics employed by lawyers for death row inmates.

Midtown resident arrested after shooting a robbery suspect being chased by police through his backyard

A midtown resident who shot a fleeing juvenile robbery suspect Wednesday night as officers gave chase later was arrested on a complaint of shooting with intent to kill.

Zachariah Kade Cook, 28, told police he heard shots fired at officers, so he retrieved his gun, according to a probable cause affidavit. Cook said he feared for officers’ safety and his own when the suspect hopped his backyard fence.

However, there have been no reports of police or suspect gunshots that night except by the armed resident. Police say Cook fired at least two rounds, one of which struck the fleeing suspect.

Once Cook was taken to headquarters for questioning, he declined to comment after being told his rights, according to the affidavit. He was then booked into the Tulsa County jail, where he remained Thursday in lieu of a $75,000 bond. The Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office will determine whether the shooting was justified.

The string of events began around 8:15 p.m. in the 9800 block of East 12th Street. A man reported being robbed of $12 and a debit card at gun point by two men while mowing his yard.

A security system in the area caught the getaway car.

About 8:45 p.m., an attempted robbery took place near the 2700 block of East 45th Street. The victim “defended himself” with his own firearm, scaring off two would-be robbers without taking anything, according to another probable cause affidavit.

Some 15 minutes later an officer near 11th Street and Sheridan Road spotted a car matching the description in both crimes, police said. A vehicular pursuit began, ending a couple of minutes later when the car crashed into a chain-link fence gate near 12th Street and Fulton Avenue.

At least three occupants fled, with officers capturing one — identified as Andrew Barret Peyton, 20 — before he could jump a fence. Police say they found the first victim’s wallet in the car, which was reported stolen.

Jalen Rayshawn Cooper, 17, reportedly surrendered to officers after his younger brother was shot by Cook in his yard.

Peyton and Cooper each were arrested in connection with two robberies with a dangerous weapon, possession of a stolen vehicle and possession of a firearm in the commission of a felony.

The wounded suspect was reported to be in critical condition Wednesday night but expected to survive, police said. He was shot once in the abdomen.

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