Education

Sovereign Community School placed on probation for remainder of 2020-2021 school year

OKLAHOMA CITY — Citing continued financial struggles and missed reporting deadlines, an Indigenous charter school’s accreditation has been downgraded.

On Nov. 12, the Oklahoma state board of education voted unanimously to place Sovereign Community School on probation for the rest of the 2020-2021 school year.

Probation is the last step before a school’s accreditation is revoked.

“You’re not in good standing right now,” state Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said, addressing representatives from the charter school. “We have an obligation to change that. This is an opportunity to change that.”

In June, the state school board voted to allow Sovereign Community School’s organizers to take out a $700,000 loan from Santa Fe South Development Inc., an Oklahoma City-based property acquisition entity that works with charter schools and education-focused non-profit organization. With the school facing almost $200,000 in debts thanks to unexpected expenses and lower enrollment than originally projected, the loan was needed to keep Sovereign Community School’s doors open until its mid-year state aid allocation arrived in October.

That approval was contingent upon the school presenting monthly financial reports to state board of education and an expedited annual audit, neither of which has happened. The audit is currently scheduled for late November after being rescheduled due to COVID-19 and an October ice storm that knocked out power across a wide swath of central and western Oklahoma.

“We do have our audit scheduled,” Sovereign Community School Superintendent Matt Wilson said.

“We are doing everything we can to get these things reconciled and get back on good standing … but this is not what we promised our community we’d provide them. We are doing what we can, but we are spread too thin.”

Wilson is one of two administrative employees at the charter school, which serves fifth through tenth grades.  

When granted permission in June to add a fifth-grade class for the 2020-2021 school year, Sovereign Community School officials said they were confident that it would help the school’s enrollment quadruple, thus making it possible to promptly pay down its loan through increased state aid dollars.

At the start of the current school year, Sovereign Community School’s enrollment had tripled from May. However, when the charter school had to pivot to distance learning this fall due to climbing COVID-19 case numbers in the Oklahoma City area, Wilson said more than 100 students and their families fled to Epic One-on-One, the state’s largest online charter school.

Those departures meant less state aid than originally budgeted, which in turn led to faculty layoffs and questions about the school’s ability to repay its loan.

“Our hope was that we’d have a higher enrollment,” Sovereign Community School board President Kate Sultuska said. “We are trying to get a committee together to help us with fundraising. I don’t think it’s sustainable, but it is all we can do right now other than try to increase enrollment.”

With a curriculum emphasizing Indigenous culture and traditions, Sovereign Charter School started classes in August 2019. It had to delay the start of its inaugural school year after its original campus site did not pass mandatory building inspections, thus prompting a scramble to find a new location and unexpected additional expenses.

That emphasis on Indigenous culture and traditions has prompted organizers to look in unorthodox places to find appropriate supplies. During the state school board’s review of the charter school’s financial records, questions were raised about more than $2,100 of expenditures made on the school’s debit card at a gun and pawn shop in Philadelphia, Mississippi.    

The school has a stickball field and incorporates Choctaw stickball into several of its classes, including history and physical education. Stickball sticks were available at the pawnshop for about $50 less per set than through local sources, prompting school officials to make the purchase.

“It does look pretty funny,” a chuckling Wilson said.