Sovereign Community School facing termination hearing over finances

OKLAHOMA CITY — A month after putting its accreditation on probation, the state Board of Education has taken a step towards pulling the plug on an Indigenous-focused charter school.

Citing concerns about the school’s long-term financial viability and ability to offer enough required courses for high school graduation, the board voted unanimously at its Dec. 17 meeting to schedule a termination hearing for Sovereign Community School within 90 days.

“We keep hearing the same thing: that things aren’t really improving,” state Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said. “It’s not that you don’t want to, but just that things are so weighty in terms of what has to be accomplished and the burden is so great. I do not have confidence that that is going to change with an extension of another month or two or three.”

Under state law, the state board of education must provide a public hearing before it terminates the accreditation of a school district or charter school. Unless it waives its right to a hearing, the school will have a right to legal counsel and be able to present evidence to justify keeping its accreditation.

If the board does vote to terminate Sovereign Community School’s accreditation, the 103 students currently enrolled there would need to find new schools for the 2021-2022 school year.

A date has not been set yet for the hearing and officials with the state Board of Education’s legal team reiterated that just because a hearing has been set does not automatically mean the school’s accreditation will be revoked if it is able to quickly get its finances in order.

“It is best to set the timeline now,” state school board attorney Brad Clark said. “It does not mean that it (termination) will be the outcome necessarily, but it will allow everyone in a transparent manner enough time to plan.”

Oklahoma’s charter school law requires charter schools to have a sponsor. Should a charter school be unable to get a school district, university or tribe to sign on in that role, the state Board of Education can do so, as it did in 2018 for Sovereign Charter School after Oklahoma City Public Schools rejected it twice.

As the school’s sponsor, the state school board voted in June 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. Among the debts still outstanding are legally required payments to the state’s teacher retirement system on behalf of the school’s faculty.

That approval was contingent upon the school presenting monthly financial reports to state board of education and an expedited annual audit. Although Clark said the flow of communication between the school and officials with the Oklahoma Department of Education has improved exponentially in recent months, he also noted that the audit is still incomplete.

Speaking before the board, SCS Superintendent Matt Wilson confirmed that the school has not established a timeline for when it will repay that loan. It also has not included the outstanding debts in its operating budget for the current school year.

“Putting that timeframe, that’s going to put a lot of urgency on our school board,” Wilson said. “I am doing my best to communicate and put things out. We do need a timeframe. If we can’t cut it, then that’s when we need to make the decision.”

Additionally, within the last two months, the school has had to either fire or ask for the resignations of two teachers and a bus driver due to finances. That leaves the school with just seven teachers, prompting additional questions about whether the school is providing a sufficient course load for its freshmen and sophomores to meet high school graduation requirements.

“I don’t doubt that they’re working really hard,” Clark said. “I don’t doubt that at all. The thin level of sustainability, if there even is that, is in serious doubt. They’re talking about cutting their teaching staff, using volunteers and at least considering only teaching certain areas. The financial stability and ramifications of that are what I’d place as serious doubt as to the future of this school.”

With a curriculum emphasizing Indigenous culture and traditions, Sovereign Charter School started classes in August. 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 scramble prompted a smaller enrollment than initially budgeted for, with many of the students enrolling after the initial state aid allocation was provided.

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 at a previous meeting that more than 100 students and their families fled to Epic One-on-One, the state’s largest online charter school. Those departures meant even more cuts to the school’s state aid allocation.

When asked by board member Bill Flanagan, Wilson said the school’s leadership has reached out to tribes across the state for financial support, but also acknowledged that the impact of Covid-19 on tribal programs and operating budgets has made it difficult.

“It might be the life saver for our school,” he said. “I go home and pray about it. That’s all I can do.”