During today’s State Board of Education meeting, board members suspended the educator certificate of Western Heights Public Schools Superintendent Mannix Barnes and requested an investigative audit of the OKC-area school district.
“We will begin scheduling a revocation hearing. That’s the due process that goes along with [suspending a certificate]. Once we schedule that, we’ll work with [Barnes’] counsel. It may get reinstated at some point, or it may be revoked,” said Brad Clark, state Board of Education general Counsel. “[Western Heights Schools Board members] need to take immediate action consistent with what the (state) board did. They need to suspend him from current employment, or they can go above that.”
Board members also approved a motion to notify the Western Heights Schools Board of Education that, at their meeting on July 12, the state board may consider modifying the district’s probationary status to include state intervention and/or possible loss of accreditation and annexation if the local school board fails to suspend Barnes from his position and implement corrective actions established at the state board’s March 25 meeting.
The state board began examining Western Heights’ accreditation after expressing the “utmost concern” about operations at the district during a March meeting and placed the district’s accreditation status on probation at an April meeting. Concerns cited by the state board include:
- failure to provide in-person instruction since March 2020;
- a decision in spring 2020 not to provide nutritional services to students;
- an audit report alleging 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 Western Heights Schools board was given 90 days from the April meeting to take corrective actions surrounding probation, but instead the district filed a lawsuit against the state board objecting to the probation and claiming that the district’s “due process rights” were violated.
Clark, who is stepping down as board general counsel but staying on as OSDE’s attorney, also presented other issues found within the district to board members during today’s meeting, including a failure to properly invest about $17.7 million of federal COVID relief money in student learning loss, mental health services or staff retention and recruitment.
“All of the expenditures with these funds, whether it’s ESSER one, two or three, have to be reasonable and necessary for the mission. The mission is to prepare, respond to and recover from COVID-19 and the impact on schools and students,” Clark said during the meeting. “We were not seeing the emergency relief money going to exactly what it was budgeted for. It was unsupported. They were budgeting for Chromebooks, and the federal programs report has administration reporting that they were using these funds to give students one-to-one technology for virtual learning. We’ve had three claims submitted throughout 2020 for the federal relief money, and it does not align with what was represented.”
Clark also said that, despite having no experience as a superintendent when he was hired by the district two years ago, Barnes’ contract with Western Heights includes:
- A $220,000 base salary with a $75,000 retention bonus effective June 15, 2022;
- 20 days of unpaid leave for outside activities;
- Reasonable time off and pay for professional growth and community involvement;
- 25 semester credit hours annually to further education;
- Membership for community organizations including the Chamber of Commerce;
- 40 vacation days per year;
- 20 sick days per year;
- 20 personal business leave days per year.
While Mannix Barnes has a total of 100 days of yearly leave slated in his contract, the district only has 167 instructional days a year.
No representative or employee from the Western Heights Public Schools district was in attendance of the day’s meeting.
‘It’s not one radical parent complaining’
During today’s meeting, Clark also touched on the complaints he has received from Western Heights community members.
“It’s not one radical parent complaining, we have numerous complaints that are coming about the environment, the culture at Western Heights Public Schools. Claims of retaliation and harassment is another pattern,” Clark said.
In February, a citizens’ petition from the Western Heights Education Association and Western Heights community requesting a special audit of the district by the State Auditor & Inspector’s Office received 998 signatures.
The petition requested that the audit look into child nutrition program expenditures, district credit card expenditures of certain administrative personnel, the issuance of school bonds used to finance and purchase school busses and payments related to consultant and attorney fees.
Western Heights community members have also been attending board meetings in recent months to call for Barnes’ resignation. However, at a Western Heights Board of Education meeting June 14, members voted 4-1 to continue to employ Barnes as superintendent. The only “No” vote came from the board’s newest member Briana Flatley, who was elected in April.
A district parent’s words during the public comment portion at the beginning of today’s state board meeting provided insight to what those within the Western Heights community have been going through.
“While we greatly appreciate the actions the State Board of Education has taken thus far, these actions have left Western Heights parents, students, educators and staff with an apprehensive and anxious feeling,” Amy Boone said. “The heart of any community [is] their schools. We know our district is in a dire situation and that the community is doing all we can to fix these problems. We believe that a solution can be found. If that means Western Heights is under the guidance and supervision of the state, so be it. We do not want to lose our accreditation and be annexed to other districts.”
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister said that, despite the current situation, there is still time for the Western Heights district to turn things around.
“We need to see the (Western Heights) board take action to follow the steps of this board to demonstrate that they’re serious about their accreditation status and about serving the needs of the community and the students within their district,” Hofmeister said. “There are steps they can take, but we’re prepared if they are not (taken). We’re prepared to stabilize and support that school district so children can be served and the community can remain engaged and be apart of what is required with the use of these federal dollars.”
‘The largest education budget in state history’
Also during Thursday’s meeting, Oklahoma State Department of Education chief of government affairs Carolyn Thompson presented details of the Oklahoma Legislature’s FY 2022 education budget.
The state board will be appropriated a total of $3,164,386,184 for FY 2022, which is an increase of about $171 million compared to last year’s education budget, which had been reduced about $78.2 million the year prior.
“This budget represents a 5.5 percent overall increase to common education,” Thompson said during the meeting. “We believe that it’s the largest education budget in state history.”
Thompson said next year’s budget will trigger class size caps for kindergarten and first-grade classrooms.
Funding streams that go to into the state’s funding formula include the General Revenue Fund, the Education Reform Revolving Fund, the Common Education Technology Fund, the Oklahoma Lottery Trust Fund and Mineral Leasing Funds.
“There was a threshold put in place in some legislation in 2019 to say once we reach a certain amount of funding, which is $100 million more than we had in 2019, then we will begin to implement those class size limits,” Thompson said. “This coming school year, schools will be working to come under those limits, which [specify] 20 students per classroom.”
The funding appropriation for instructional materials also saw a sharp increase of about 81.8 percent for the upcoming fiscal year.
“I could not let this presentation go by with out highlighting the investment that has been made for textbooks this year, which we are very excited about,” Thompson said. “This is the first time I think anyone in the department can remember that this has been more than $33 million.”
Hofmeister called the investment in instructional materials for Oklahoma schools historic.
“This is an extraordinary, historic moment where the actual request for instructional materials that tied to the cost was actually funded,” Hofmeister said.
(Correction: This article was updated at 7:05 a.m. Friday, June 25, to reflect that no representative or employee from the Western Heights Public Schools district was in attendance of Thursday’s meeting.)