State Board of Education
The State Board of Education held a special meeting Thursday, May 27, 2021, during which it accepted the resignation of general counsel Brad Clark. (Screenshot)

During a special meeting Thursday, the State Board of Education received the resignation of its general counsel, Brad Clark. The board also heard an update from Oologah-Talala Public Schools regarding accreditation probation and entered into executive session to discuss a lawsuit filed by Western Heights Public Schools.

Brad Clark has served as general counsel for the State Department of Education and state board since 2015 and will continue to serve as legal counsel for the SDE.

“It is after much thought and consideration, as life changes and additional opportunities within my role as general counsel to the State Department of Education are presenting themselves, I hereby submit my resignation as general counsel to this board,” Clark said in a statement. “To be certain, this resignation is not intended to impact my role and service to State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Joy Hofmeister. In fact, I’m excited to continue in that role and increase focus on the important work within the State Department of Education under her incredible leadership.”

Clark said he will continue to serve in his position until the board retains its next legal counsel.

“We are grateful for your leadership and service and look forward to our next chapter,” Hofmeister said during the meeting. “Brad Clark remains as general counsel for the State Department of Education and we have an enormous amount of work with the new federal funds and regulations that go with that, as well as a host of other duties.”

‘I don’t have the trust yet, personally’

Officials with Oologah-Talala Public Schools, including outgoing Superintendent Tony Sappington and incoming Superintendent David Wilkins, were voluntarily in attendance of Thursday’s meeting. They were there to provide an update on progress the district has made after its accreditation was dropped to “probationary status” in June, 2020, owing to the mishandling of five sexual misconduct allegations against employees of the district at the time.

“I feel really good about the strides and the actions that we’ve taken and where we are today,” Sappington said. “If you look back to July of last year, we’ve accomplished a lot. We’ve done everything that’s been asked of us (by the state board) and much more.”

At a state board meeting in March, Sappington provided an update on changes the district had made at the board’s request, such as providing proof of Title IX training to Chief Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Robyn Miller, naming a Title IX deputy coordinator for the district, ensuring school board members receive Title IX training, creating Title IV onboarding training for all new district employees and developing a plan to receive feedback from the community.

Title IX is part of the federal code that deals with rules about harassment, discrimination and sexual misconduct in education settings, and Title IV involves federal financial student aid.

“I’ve reviewed everything that’s been done, everything that’s been requested by the state board,” Wilkins said during the meeting. “I want to commend Mr. Sappington on the work he’s done over the past year to address the needs and address the requests of the state board and to take a holistic look at the culture and what has been done and what needs to be done here in the school.”

During the meeting, board member Brian Bobek said he would recommend continuing the discussion of the district’s accreditation at the state board’s August meeting.

“I don’t have the trust yet, personally. I don’t think some of my colleagues do yet either,” Bobek said during the meeting. “I think it’s probably in everyone’s best interest to let you (Wilkins) get seated in and your next update will be at our August meeting, and we can review your accreditation status at that time. I’m certainly hopeful that you guys have turned this around.”

Board member Estela Hernandez echoed Bobek’s desire to revisit the issue at the August board meeting.

“We’re definitely on the right path and it will take time,” Hernandez said during the meeting. “It’s been years of this culture that was created in this school district, and in order to turn things around from that negative and toxic culture that’s led to what happened there, it’s going to take some time.”

The board was slated to hear an update from officials with Sovereign Community School, which has also been on probation. However, the item was tabled until the board’s June meeting.

Sovereign School, an Oklahoma City charter school that opened in 2019 and provides culturally relevant curriculum to the approximately 106 Indigenous students it serves, had its accreditation placed on probation at a November board meeting owing to a lack of communication with the State Department of Education and a failure to comply with accreditation standards, including financial reporting.

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.

Western Heights Schools lawsuit

Western Heights Schools
Members of the Western Heights Schools community call for the resignation of Superintendent Mannix Barnes, as well as other school board members, before a school board meeting on Monday, May 11, 2021. (Megan Prather)

State board members entered executive session at Thursday’s meeting to discuss a lawsuit filed in Oklahoma County District Court in April by Western Heights Schools, alleging that the board violated the Open Meetings Act and Administrative Procedures Act when voting to place the district’s accreditation under probation in April.

No discussion was had and no action was taken after executive session.

The state board voted to place Western Height’s accreditation on probation at an April meeting owing to 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 lawsuit filed by Western Heights was ratified at the district’s board meeting in May. It alleges that the district’s due process rights were violated and requests declaratory judgement to determine that the state board:

  • “has violated the district’s right of a fair and impartial adjudication, and has violated the due process rights of the superintendent by reaching decisions of great importance without standards, procedures or policies, and such decisions should be vacated and held for naught”;
  • “has failed to properly promulgate fair policies and procedures or set forth standards and guidelines for the fair and impartial adjudication, in the form of individual proceedings, of accreditation or other actions against school districts which affect the district, its staff and its students”;
  • “must lawfully promulgate appropriate and fair procedures prior to taking any action against the superintendent or district which might reduce or revoke accreditation and/or funding of the district”;
  • “has no legal authority to order district employees or volunteer board members to attend state board meetings or legally sanction them for a failure to appear”;
  • “has failed to conduct an investigation or file the required reports, all of which must occur before an individual proceeding, and that all decisions on March 25 and April 9 regarding or affecting the district and superintendent is invalid.”

(Clarification:This article and headline were updated at 2:27 p.m. Thursday, May 27, to clarify details about Clark’s resignation.)