Oklahoma County District Court Judge Cindy Truong signed an order Wednesday for Seeworth Academy’s board of directors to transfer all property and funds to Oklahoma City Public Schools a week after the school district asked the judge to freeze the former charter school’s bank accounts. However, a Seeworth Academy board member — and current member of the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals — told NonDoc on Thursday that OKCPS has made false statements about the situation and that Seeworth would like to open a new charter school in the future.
OKCPS board member Mark Mann defended the district’s position and said obtaining property, funds and financial records from Seeworth has been “a constant battle.”
“We have had difficulty in getting everything from student records in the beginning to financial records to turning over just basic school equipment like the buses and computers and things like that,” Mann said.
However, Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals Judge Barbara Swinton — a longtime Seeworth board member — said OKCPS’ comments on the situation have been inaccurate.
“We were ready, willing, and able to continue to serve these kids that need a place to go to school that haven’t done well in traditional school settings,” Swinton said. “So we are very concerned about the educational opportunity that they are going to have this year.”
Asked to respond to Swinton’s criticism, Mann said he preferred to focus on the future and not the past.
“We’ve got 40,000 kids that we need to focus on, and I would rather have conversations about what we’re doing in the district to change the narrative and to really reinvent and turn the entire district around — including kids that we are now serving that were at Seeworth,” Mann said. “But to go back and rehash the past, I don’t think is helpful for kids or anybody.”
Last week, OKCPS requested that a judge freeze the bank accounts of Seeworth Academy through a temporary restraining order to stop the Seeworth board of directors from spending money on a school they voted to close owing to financial concerns unearthed earlier in the year.
In the request, OKCPS sought to acquire property — such as furniture and buses — that would now belong to the district for use at Putnam Heights Academy, where the former students of Seeworth now attend.
“The Oklahoma Charter Schools Act specifically states that any personal property purchased with state or local funds shall be retained by the sponsoring school district upon the termination of the charter school’s charter,” read an OKCPS statement issued Aug 29. “As we broadly reported, Seeworth relinquished its charter with OKCPS effective June 30, 2019. Since then, district officials have repeatedly attempted to obtain student and financial records as well as important pieces of equipment purchased with public money and donations made to the school such as school buses, athletic equipment, educational technology and other items from Seeworth only to be denied access to their campus. By law, this property should be used to benefit the former Seeworth students who are now being served by OKCPS at Putnam Heights Academy.”
Swinton, however, claims she and her fellow board members were prepared to cooperate the whole time, and she said OKCPS’ decision to move students to Putnam Heights was a surprise to them, rather than the other way around.
“Right before they refused to leave our kids on our campus, we were negotiating the details of how many buses and how many counselors and how many nurses were we going to have on campus,” Swinton said. “And then [OKCPS] calls a news conference and says that they’re not going to let our kids on our campus, and they keep repeating the false statement that we refused to lease to them.”
Swinton said OKCPS had confirmed at a July 15 board meeting that they had the lease ready and that the district had already leased the Putnam Heights building to someone else.
But an Aug. 19 OKCPS statement asserted that Seeworth was continuing to spend money from its general fund, a violation of the agreed procedure for closing the charter school and a violation of Oklahoma school finance law.
“We are extremely disappointed that SeeWorth, an entity created to serve some of our city’s most vulnerable students, has been unwilling to adhere to the agreed upon terms of their closing, thereby forcing OKCPS to take action in the courts,” the statement said. “We do, however, look forward to working through the legal process to find a timely resolution to these issues so OKCPS can finally focus our time and resources on serving the students of Putnam Heights Academy.”
Swinton blamed the district for moving the school’s students.
“We wanted our kids to be able to stay on this property, but [OKCPS] refused to negotiate the terms of the lease,” Swinton said. “But they were, I think, not agreeing to a one year lease, which is what we asked for. And then they just stopped negotiating.”
Swinton said Seeworth’s board had made multiple attempts to negotiate with OKCPS, including the Tuesday before the lawsuit was filed “and they wouldn’t do it,” she said.
Seeworth facing state audit as well
On Wednesday, Truong gave Seeworth’s board of directors until noon on Friday, Sept. 13, to meet and vote to transfer all property to OKCPS.
“OKCPS is pleased with today’s agreed court order through which OKCPS shall finally retrieve property and funds in accordance with Seeworth Academy’s voluntary closure in May 2019,” OKCPS said in a statement issued Wednesday.
Mann pointed to the agreed order, which said Seeworth had no need for the property because the board relinquished its charter on June 30 amid OKCPS and Oklahoma State Department of Education investigations into alleged financial mismanagement.
But Swinton said the district was mischaracterizing Seeworth’s actions.
“My main concern is that Oklahoma City and their comments didn’t address that it was an agreed order,” Swinton said. “The judge didn’t do anything but sign the order that we had negotiated with Oklahoma City.”
Ultimately, Swinton said she and her board would like to open a new charter.
“We are hoping that Oklahoma City does a good job, but we are just looking forward to revamping our school and starting with another holder of a charter in the future,” Swinton said. “So that we can continue to serve these kids.”
Seeworth, however, is now facing an audit from State Auditor and Inspector Cindy Byrd as requested Thursday, Aug. 22, by the Oklahoma State Board of Education. OSDE wrote a letter May 2 alleging that Seeworth misused federal and state funds and showed evidence of gross neglect and non-compliance with state and federal law. The revelation led Seeworth’s board of directors to voluntarily relinquish the school’s charter and terminate the contract.
Andy Evans, director of finance for the Oklahoma Public Schools Resource Center — which was hired to help with the transition of Seeworth back to OKCPS control — said everything needs to be taken care of by Dec. 31 of this year, but closing audits are still needing to be carried out.
“I don’t know if they are going to go ahead and use the state auditor and inspector because Oklahoma City is going to pay for that,” Evans said. “If they use [the state audit] for the closing audit, which would be more exact, that could take longer than what the Dec. 31 date is.”
Swinton said all records are in the hands of OKCPS and that all of the money that was left in Seeworth’s account is equal to the carry over amount from last year. It would be OKCPS’ responsibility to complete those processes on time because they have everything needed to carry out closing audits, she said.
“The audit has to do with financial misuse. And whether or not our leadership team at the school properly spent the money,” Swinton said.
As of now, it is unclear what would happen if the school’s closure is not finalized by the Dec. 31 date.
“We haven’t had that happen before,” Evans said. “We will see.”
Mann said that should not be an issue.
“There’s no reason though, in this case, that we can’t make this happen and get this done in a timely fashion and move on down the road,” Mann said. “Other than that, they have not been forthcoming with financial records and properties so that we can make this transaction happen.”