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Private club dinner, law change are latest in juvenile contract dispute

Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs leaders dined at a private club with a group vying for a multimillion-dollar state contract while officials worked to change state law so the group could do business here.
BY JOHN ESTUS and ANN KELLEY Modified: December 9, 2010 at 6:03 am •  Published: December 9, 2010

In an e-mail to a Rite of Passage employee thanking him for the tour of the group's Ridge View Academy, Christian recounts a conversation with his son, who toured the academy with him.

“He asked if I had anything like the Ridge View Academy,” Christian wrote. “Of course, my response was, ‘Nothing of the sort.' He said ‘Get One!'”

Christian also wrote that he had been “strongly suggesting” to his agency's board members that they visit the Colorado academy.

Christian toured the Colorado academy again in June just days before his agency asked for bids for a new juvenile center.

Several legislators — including Coates — also toured the Colorado academy before the bidding began for Oklahoma's new juvenile center.

State law changed

The change in state law Office of Juvenile Affairs officials sought allowed the agency to send its juvenile inmates to charter schools while incarcerated.

The practice wasn't previously possible, but agency officials and Atwood were successful this year in lobbying the Legislature to change state law to allow it, records and interviews show.

Rite of Passage operates its academies as charter schools and couldn't have accepted state juvenile inmates if not for lawmakers changing the law this year, Christian said Wednesday.

Christian said Wednesday that Rite of Passage wasn't the reason his agency sought to change the charter school law. He said his agency already had been planning to ask that the law be changed so they could offer charter school programs to juvenile inmates at L.E. Rader Center in Sand Springs.

JLynn Hartman, the agency's legislative liaison, on April 6 e-mailed Atwood the proposed language for the bill that would allow the juvenile agency to have a charter school.

Hartman wrote in an April 20 e-mail to a Senate legislative analyst working on the bill, House Bill 2753, that Atwood was planning on discussing the proposed language with then-House Speaker Chris Benge.

In that e-mail, Hartman told the legislative analyst: “… the Rite of Passage program would be a great asset to have in Oklahoma. However, having the academy would require us to have the authority for a charter school. We are very open to the idea and welcome whatever you could do to help us achieve ability to have a charter school.”

Atwood had been asking the legislative analyst about whether the agency could start a private charter school, according to the e-mail.

An April 23 e-mail from the legislative analyst to Coates' assistant recounts a conversation that week between Atwood, Coates and the analyst about the charter school issue.