Tulsa World

2 Statewide Virtual Charter School Board seats open

Members whose ties to Epic were scrutinize­d have resigned


OKLAHOMA CITY — Two state officials who had been scrutinize­d over connection­s to Epic Charter Schools have resigned unexpected­ly from the state agency overseeing virtual education programs.

Mathew Hamrick and Phyllis Shepherd tendered their resignatio­ns from the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board without notifying the agency of their plans to leave office.

The small state agency, led by a five-member board, oversees six virtual charter schools, the largest of which is Epic.

Neither Hamrick nor Shepherd responded to requests for comment.

Shepherd, 76, submitted a brief resignatio­n letter Aug. 9 to House Speaker Charles McCall, who appointed her to the board in 2018. On the typed letter of resignatio­n, Shepherd hand wrote “health reasons” as the apparent rationale for her departure.

Hamrick’s resignatio­n was effective Sept. 10, according to a letter he sent on the same date to Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat. Hamrick, 40, was the longest-serving member still on the board, having been appointed in 2015.

“With the needs of my growing family and responsibi­lities at work I do not feel

I have the appropriat­e time to dedicate to this important responsibi­lity,” Hamrick wrote in his resignatio­n letter.

Shepherd had not informed the Virtual Charter School Board that she had resigned, said Skylar Lusnia, the agency’s compliance auditor. The board was unaware that Hamrick also intended to depart.

It wasn’t until agency employees contacted them to see if they would attend a Tueday board meeting that they learned the two members had resigned directly to the legislativ­e offices that had appointed them, Lusnia said. Tuesday’s meeting has been canceled.

Both Hamrick and Shepherd would have reached the end of their three-year terms at the end of October.

Board Chair Robert Franklin said their decisions to resign were timely.

“Their board service has been long standing, and I think it’s respectful to honor their decision to pave the way for new board members to fully engage in the exciting frontier of opportunit­ies that the Statewide Virtual Charter Board is committed to oversee and to guide policy decisions,” Franklin wrote in a message to The Oklahoman.

The board disqualifi­ed Hamrick and Shepherd on Dec. 8 from voting on matters related to Epic after discoverin­g that both had ties to a co-founder of the virtual charter school system.

Both Epic and its co-founders have been under criminal investigat­ion for several years and were accused of financial wrongdoing — allegation­s the school system and its co-founders, David Chaney and Ben Harris, deny.

Hamrick and Shepherd were fully reinstated in July after Epic severed all ties with Chaney and Harris.

But their involvemen­t on the board has been sparse for most of this year. Of the nine board meetings held in 2021, Hamrick attended four and Shepherd attended three.

“It has been a year of social tumult both on a national and local level, and certainly the individual recusals made the board operations more difficult during this time frame,” Franklin said. “But clarity and purposeful board work persevered.”

Shepherd is a “half great aunt” of Chaney, a familial relation she had not disclosed to the board or to the House speaker, according to a Tulsa World report.

While serving on the board, Hamrick received a $200 campaign contributi­on from Chaney in a failed 2017 bid for a state Senate seat.

The Oklahoma State Auditor and Inspector’s Office questioned Hamrick over his relationsh­ip with the Epic co-founder and learned that the board member had a “longtime personal friendship with Chaney,” according to an audit report.

Hamrick told state auditors he unilateral­ly had an agenda item, in which the board could have requested an investigat­ive audit of

Epic, removed before a June 2019 board meeting.

Hamrick, who was the board chairperso­n at the time, admitted that he had the agenda item removed after receiving a personal call from Chaney. He told auditors he wanted the item taken off “because the votes were not there,” according to the audit report.

“Hamrick also indicated that after Chaney’s phone call he canvassed other board members regarding the removal of this item from the agenda,” auditors wrote. “Two of the board members denied being called by Hamrick and the other two board members could not recollect being contacted by him.”

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