State Board of Education
The State Board of Education held a special meeting on Friday, April 9, 2021 to discuss the charter authorization of Sovereign Community School and the accreditation of Western Heights Public Schools. (Megan Prather)

At a special meeting of the State Board of Education today, members unanimously voted to put the accreditation of Western Heights Public Schools under probation and to keep the charter authorization of Sovereign Community School on probation as well — in both cases, for multiple counts of non-compliance with accreditation standards.

“The recommendation of the department is to put Western Heights on probation in order for corrective action and close monitoring and regular reporting to occur to bring them back into compliance within 90 days,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister said during the meeting.

The district will have 90 days to take those corrective actions and will be required to report at the state board’s regular scheduled meeting on April 22.

Western Heights administration was notified to appear at today’s board meeting to discuss concerns, but no one representing the district was in attendance.

The district’s accreditation came into question at a March 25 meeting at which the state board expressed “utmost concern” about the operations of Western Heights. Issues cited by the state board include:

  • failure to provide in-person instruction since March 2020;
  • a decision in the spring of 2020 not to provide nutritional services to students;
  • an audit report showing violations of state law, including the use of 2018 bond proceeds meant for contracting and repairing facilities to pay off debt instead;
  • a board member consuming alcohol during a public meeting;
  • a 23 percent drop in student enrollment, from 3,365 to 2,597 in the past year, and a loss of more than 100 staff members in the past two years;
  • disharmony in the school environment and community.

“They are the only district, as far as I’m aware, in the state of Oklahoma that has not provided an in-person option for the entire year and into last year as well,” General Counsel Brad Clark said during Friday’s meeting.

Clark also said that the district advised Federal Programs staff that they were able to utilize Federal Cares Act funds to make ChromeBooks and iPads available for each student in the district. However, the reimbursement claims that were submitted did not include any of those items.

“If I’m missing those, today would’ve been the opportunity for the district to respond to us and show us otherwise … but as I sit here today there’s not a single document that I’m aware of to show what’s reflected according to the 1-1 technology being purchased,” Clark said.

‘Our situation is dire’

Clark and Assistant General Counsel Lori Murphy went on to read letters sent to the State Department of Education by parents in the Western Heights community who are concerned about operations in the district and about the leadership of Superintendent Mannix Barnes.

“Our situation is dire for our students, our families and for our teachers,” one of the letters said. “Mr. Barnes has complete disdain for all of us and has made derogatory remarks to individuals about what he thinks about our families such as they are ‘dumb and poor.'”

The Western Heights district has dealt with multiple points of criticism in recent years. At a school board meeting in October 2019, 15 Western Heights Schools employees, including the assistant superintendent, resigned in protest of the district’s management. that same month, Western Heights parents requested an investigation of the district for issues including classroom overcrowding and hiring decisions. They also called for an investigation into Superintendent Mannix Barnes’ $220,000 salary and his work history and relationship with school-board members.

Early in the pandemic, Barnes got in a standoff with state and city officials over the district’s decision to stop its meal-delivery program.

In February of this year, the Western Heights Education Association and community collected 998 signatures for a citizens’ petition requesting a special audit of the school district by the State Auditor & Inspector’s Office. The petition has since been delivered to the Oklahoma County Election Board for verification.

“I do want to make sure that those in that district that have cried out [know] we’ve heard their cries clearly,” board member Brian Bobek said during the meeting.

Sovereign School given more time to comply with standards

Sovereign Community School, in Oklahoma City, was first put on probation in November, owing to a lack of communication with the State Department of Education and failure to comply with accreditation standards, including inconsistencies in financial reporting. At a December meeting, the state board voted to begin the process of terminating their charter authorization contract with Sovereign. Today’s vote to keep the charter school under probation will give Sovereign more time to align with contract standards.

The status of the school’s charter authorization will be revisited at the state board’s meeting in June. Sovereign School will be required to provide status updates at each state board meeting leading up to June, hire a permanent superintendent, clean up their finances and provide a five-year financial forecast at the state board’s meeting on April 22.

The recommendation from Clark was to terminate the charter authorization with Sovereign.

“The finances the entire time have been based on hopes that have never come to reality. Now we’re trying to run the school based on loans. Without those grants, tribal partnerships, the increased enrollment, I think this is a pathway for a bad ending,” Clark said on Friday. “I think the recommendation to you all today is to terminate the school effective June 30 of 2021. That would provide notice opportunity to families today that they should seek other options for next year that are available to them.”

Areas of concern continue to include the charter application not being adhered to in core areas, failure to adhere to contract and probationary terms, delayed and inaccurate reporting, non-compliance with the Open Meetings Act and having finances based on grants, increased enrollment and lending.

Sovereign Community School opened in 2019 and provides culturally relevant curriculum to the approximately 106 Indigenous students it serves. Osage News reported that lower enrollment rates than originally expected as well as unexpected expenses have led to financial difficulties for Sovereign, leading the school to take out a $700,000 loan from Sate Fe South Development Inc., of which the school still has $300,000 left to pay back.

Areas of concern identified in an audit requested by the state board received in February include a lack of a segregation of duties, a failure to have contracts in place for administrative and support staff, unsigned purchase orders and violations of the Open Meeting Act.

“The audit is a bad financial audit,” Clark said. “I believe the schools failed to adhere to the contract and probationary terms that were imposed. Reporting was delayed, not provided, inaccurate and we see non-compliance with laws and regulations, including, but not limited to, open meetings.”

‘We have been more than forthcoming’

Sovereign Community School interim Superintendent Stacie Thrasher and interim board president Kyla Molina were present at Friday’s meeting to provide an update regarding the corrective actions the district has been taking.

“We have been more than forthcoming with any information requested and we have shown to be very constant in communication going back in forth in trying to fix these issues,” Molina said. “We want to make it very apparent that we’re thankful for the state board stepping in, because as we started to unfold this we recognized more and more things that were not taken care of. We show humility in knowing that we are in a place now where we feel confident that we can move forward.”

Molina told board members that corrective actions taken by the school include obligations to the Teacher Retirement System being paid in full on February 2, updated personnel reporting, school board and committee meetings being held as requested and frequent communication being maintained between Thrasher, Clark and State Department of Education staff. She also said they have a timeline set to have a new superintendent hired by May 15. Molina also spoke to the school’s lack of promised tribal partnerships and grants.

“While there have been promises of tribal involvement and donations, it is no secret that our community has been hit very hard by COVID,” Molina said. “There were previous grants we were approved for, for example the Inasmuch, and when COVID hit they rescinded that and no one received that grant. In the future, depending on this meeting today, we are hoping without the fact of us closing hanging over our head, that we’ll be able to move forward with additional funding.”

Hofmeister expressed her concerns regarding Sovereign School during the meeting.

“We understand what it means to have a great heart and vision for students and a plan, but those do not translate always into an operation that can support that vision and work,” Hofmeister said. “I’m still concerned about the operations and how we’re even going to successfully close the school year, let alone begin a heavy lift to even be able to open that new year. That focus on the students and minimizing disruption is something I think has to be a part of this conversation today.”