A court ruling Monday requires the state Education Department to fund a fledgling virtual charter school that will be the first of its kind in Oklahoma enrolling kindergarten through 12th-grade students from across the state in online courses.
The ruling also ostensibly created a new school district for the charter school, allowing Epic 1 on 1 Charter School to manage its own funding and enrollment.
After the decision, state schools Superintendent Sandy Garrett expressed concern that the ruling had created a new school district outside the purviews of governmental oversight, unlike any other district in the state.
"We're perplexed as to why the judge would create another school district," Garrett said. "We don't have a school district that has no representation through their community through a democratic election."
While all school districts have elected school boards, the private nonprofit corporation operating Epic 1 on 1 will not have an elected governing board.
Co-founders of the school, Ben Harris and David Chaney, hoped to open the school's virtual doors to 400 students on Sept. 1, but their application to obtain a "school number" from the state was denied.
Epic sued the state, asking Oklahoma County District Judge Patricia Parrish to force the state to issue the essential school code for funding and student enrollment.
But Parrish's ruling was only a partial victory for the school.
Parrish said that state charter school law clearly limits schools, such as Epic, from enrolling students after April 1, the date the statewide open student transfer period closes.
With that date passed, the new school will be without students for the 2010-2011 school year.
And parents who had been counting on the online school opening on Sept. 1 will have to find an alternative option.
Under state law, all charter schools must have a sponsoring entity that is either a school district, an institution of higher education, a career technology center or an American Indian nation.
Garrett said the law clearly states that all of those entities must get approval of their governing board before they can charter a school — a step that Epic lacks.
Epic's attorney Bill Hickman maintained in court on Monday that the University of Central Oklahoma had agreed to charter the school for five years.
Hickman presented a contract signed by the executive vice president of UCO, and an e-mail sent to Harris, the charter school's founder, assuring him that the executive vice president had the authority to execute contracts on behalf of the university.
Parrish ruled that contract was valid and enough to force the state to fund the school.
The university — not named in the lawsuit — had issued a statement last week saying the university did not have a contract in place with Epic that had been approved by its governing board.
Chaney, co-founder of Epic, said he was not concerned by that statement.
"We never had a problem with UCO. We have a signed contract, and those now will be resolved," Chaney said.
Garrett serves as both the head of the state Education Department and as a member of the board of directors for the Regional University System of Oklahoma — the entity that governs UCO.
She said the charter school contract never came before the full board. After a presentation was made to a smaller committee of four members, the application for approval was withdrawn from the board's agenda.