Chants calling for the resignations of Western Heights Board of Education members erupted from community members at the conclusion of tonight’s board meeting, which followed a State Board of Education decision earlier in the day to take over governance of the troubled district for the 2021-2022 school year.
Despite the state board’s vote to modify Western Heights’ probation status for full state intervention — including the appointment of an interim superintendent — Western Heights board members offered no substantial discussion about the state board’s concerns.
Western Heights Superintendent Mannix Barnes, who had his educator certificate suspended by the state board in June, did not attend Monday night’s meeting. Neither did board members Robert Sharp and Rosalind Cravens. The board did not enter executive session.
The board’s most recently elected member, Briana Flatley, spoke with reporters after the meeting about the state board’s decision to take over the district.
“It was kind of an emotional experience. In one aspect, you’re a school board member and you’re supposed to be the one who’s making those decisions and you almost feel powerless,” Flatley said. “In the same sense, you know that when your hands are kind of tied behind your back and there’s nothing the rest of your school board is doing to help make those changes, it’s a step in the right direction.”
Board Chairman Robert Everman refused to comment about the situation, but Flatley said the state board’s decision has her feeling “hopeful and optimistic.”
“I think it’s going to be a step in the right direction,” she said. “It’s going to be something the district needed. We’ve been in a lot of trouble for the last couple of years.”
Oklahoma Education Association organizer for the Western Heights, Bruce Treadaway, joined community members gathered outside prior to Monday night’s meeting.
“[We’re celebrating] their decision to relieve the board of education of Western Heights of its duties and for the school district to be under the direction of the State Department of Education, for a full-scale investigation into the financial doings of the district and the suspension and decertification of the current superintendent,” Treadaway said. “They’ll be assigning an interim superintendent within 72 hours, and we’re all looking forward to that. It’s nice to see our efforts come to fruition, and it’s all because of these people in the community.”
Despite the State Board of Education’s prior requests, Barnes is still employed by the district.
‘You tried to call the state’s bluff, and you lost’
After board members completed general business about personnel and financial matters, former Western Heights parent and community member Brianna Dodd spoke during the public comment portion about the state board’s decision. Dodd, who lost a 2019 school board election against Sharp by a vote of 43-24, called for the resignations of all board members except Flatley.
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“After the loss of 277 teachers, let me tell you, these are not just numbers. These are people,” Dodd said. “They are our family at Western Heights. These people that you have terminated and accepted resignations for, you lost in the end. You tried to call the state’s bluff, and you lost.”
Dodd said the state takeover of the school district will help bring back some teachers who left the district.
“We will bring back the students, and we will make sure that you are not here to see it,” Dodd said “The loyalty that this board — and when I say ‘board’ I do not mean Briana Flatley, because all of these things, all of these decisions were made prior to her coming on this board — has shown to Mannix Barnes over every child and teacher in this district is disgusting and asinine.”
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.
At its June meeting, the state board approved requesting an investigative audit of the school district by the State Auditor & Inspector’s Office.