When the Oklahoma State Board of Education met behind closed doors this week to discuss investigations into Epic Charter Schools and proposed actions against educators’ state certifications, they had a unique observer present.
State Rep. Sheila Dills, a freshman Tulsa lawmaker, used a rarely invoked legal provision in state law to sit in on the state board’s executive session.
“I’m very interested in what is taking place with the state department and current events,” said Dills, a Republican whose House District 69 includes portions of south Tulsa, Jenks and Bixby. “I want to have a positive working relationship with them. There were agenda items that I had an interest in. I feel like it is part of my responsibility and especially since I serve on the Common Education Committee to know exactly what is going on.”
She added: “I have statutory authority to attend, and the speaker of the House and Common Ed chair supported this.”
Dills authored one of the only successful pieces of legislation during the 2019 session targeting virtual schools with new financial transparency reporting requirements and prohibitions on employee conflicts of interest.
Brad Clark, general counsel at the Oklahoma State Department of Education, said he had never seen it used, but a provision in state law allows legislative committee members to attend executive sessions of related state bodies.
Specifically, Title 25, Chapter 8, Section 310 of state statutes includes Definitions and General Provisions for the Oklahoma Open Meeting Act.
It states: “Any member of the Legislature appointed as a member of a committee of either house of the Legislature or joint committee thereof shall be permitted to attend any executive session authorized by the Oklahoma Open Meeting Act of any state agency, board or commission whenever the jurisdiction of such committee includes the actions of the public body involved.”
The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation is investigating allegations of embezzlement, obtaining money by false pretenses and racketeering at Epic, the state’s fastest-growing 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.
Late last week, Gov. Kevin Stitt requested an investigative audit of Epic Charter Schools and its related entities by the Oklahoma State Auditor and Inspector.
Dills authored House Bill 1395, which resulted in Epic’s co-founder, David Chaney, stepping down from his role as superintendent this summer because of his ownership stake in the for-profit company that manages the public charter school.
In public court records, OSBI said it reviewed bank statements that showed Chaney and fellow Epic co-founder Ben Harris had split profits of at least $10 million between 2013 and 2018.