After saying Western Heights Schools Superintendent Mannix Barnes was appearing before the State Board of Education this morning in a spirit of “full and complete cooperation,” attorney Jerry Colclazier said Barnes would not be answering questions regarding the board’s reasons for putting the district on probation earlier this month because the matter is the subject of a newly filed lawsuit.
“The district continues to object to the actions and procedures of the state board and the (education) department,” Colclaizer said in an opening statement. “And this morning, the district has filed in the District Court of Oklahoma County a lawsuit asserting the district’s and the superintendent’s statutory and constitutional rights.”
The lawsuit follows the board’s April 9 decision to put Western Heights’ accreditation on probation following a flood of complaints from parents and staff in the district. The board said it based its decision on a number of factors, including:
- 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.
The district was given an eight-point list of requirements it would have to meet within 90 days to have the probation lifted.
‘That’s what attorneys do’
In a letter sent to the board Thursday, Barnes responded to each requirement, outlining actions the district has underway and taking issue with several of the board’s allegations.
The actions mentioned include a vote to return to in-person learning on an A/B schedule, a new web form to submit anonymous complaints, a planned review of “actual numbers” of staff loss in the district (Barnes contends the board’s numbers are inaccurate), and a plan to submit a letter showing that missed benefit payments to staff were the fault of “an accounting issue caused by the previous payroll vendor.”
In the course of a tense hour and a half at Thursday’s meeting, Barnes and Colclazier refused to answer questions that dealt with the events leading up to probation. But Barnes did say the facts as presented in the board’s decision are “just false.”
In the letter and in the meeting, Barnes denied that “CARES Act monies were ever misused in FY 2020 as alleged.”
Board members, including Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister, pushed back against Barnes’ representation of the charge, saying that the issue, rather, was a lack of documentation of how the money was used.
“I would like to remind the board that there was no allegation of misuse,” Hofmeister said. “The question had to do with the lack of adjusting and making claims about how those funds were to be used and then simply not adjusting that.”
Colclazier said the district “disagrees completely with that statement” regarding the nature of the allegations. He also said records of how the money was used would be available in coming weeks.
“What was presented to you was not accurate at all,” he said.
Barnes also said there was nothing improper in the school’s use of bond money and that many districts used bonds in similar ways, just as many districts are losing students, which he blamed largely on students enrolling in Epic Charter Schools.
At the same time, Barnes would not confirm that Western Heights had indeed lost students, because it is an issue in the lawsuit.
When the board’s general counsel, Brad Clark, pointed out that student enrollment numbers were certified by Barnes’ own office and asked whether he had certified inaccurate numbers, Colclazier shot back, “We’re not litigating that issue here today. We’ll address that in district court.”
“Our records are as correct as Mid-Del [School District],” he added, “which indicates a 5 percent greater increase in lost students than Western Heights has.”
“Understand,” Clark replied. “Not answering the question and deflecting about other districts.”
“That’s what attorneys do,” Colclazier replied.
But Barnes also disputed the idea that there have been widespread complaints, suggesting at one point that many came from people outside the district. He also argued that, in order to address complaints from parents and employees, the district would have to know their identities.
Hofmeister responded that the complaints about Western Heights are more severe than the issues that usually come up in any school district.
“There is a lot of fear — fear for retaliation or losing their jobs,” she said. “That’s part of why we’ve asked you to be here. To help understand why there is such disharmony in the community and within the district.”
‘Voices haven’t been heard’
Throughout the proceedings, Colclazier accused the board of failing to provide a “fair and impartial hearing.”
Board member Carlisha Bradley pointed out that the district’s leadership did not show up to the April 9 meeting where the probation decision was made, despite being invited.
“Our system of justice is based on notice and an opportunity to successfully and fairly defend one’s self in a hearing,” Colclazier said. “I did not let my clients come to an ambush on April 9.”
Toward the end of the discussion, board member Estela Hernandez delivered an impassioned plea for the district not to lose sight of the needs of parents and students.
“Aside from all of the financial (questions) and everything, as you mentioned, we can agree to disagree,” she said. “But one thing you cannot disagree on is that you have students and parents whose voices haven’t been heard, and it’s time for that to change. And that’s why we’re here today.”
A digital copy of Western Heights’ lawsuit became available Friday morning after this story’s publication, and it has been embedded here.
April 22 State Board of Education meeting
(Update: This article was updated at 11:45 a.m. Friday, April 23, to include the lawsuit filed by Western Heights.)