The Western Heights Public Schools Board of Education held a meeting Thursday afternoon at which members appointed the district’s assistant superintendent, Kim Race, as interim superintendent — a move State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister had warned against.
The board’s newest member, Briana Flatley, cast the only “no” vote, while board member Robert Sharp was absent from the meeting.
“It’s an inappropriate action and will be invalid should they attempt to proceed,” State Department of Education Executive Director of Communications Carrie Burkhart said in a statement. “It’s a further demonstration of the Western Heights school board president’s disregard for the authority of the Oklahoma State Board of Education.”
On Monday, the State Board of Education voted to take over governance of the district, which had its accreditation placed on probation by the state board in April. The state’s control of the district is set to last for a year and includes the power to appoint an interim superintendent to replace Mannix Barnes, who was removed from the position and had his educator certificate suspended by the state board in June.
Hofmeister assigned Monty Guthrie, deputy superintendent of Finance and Federal Programs at the Oklahoma State Department of Education, as interim superintendent of the district on Tuesday. However, the Western Heights board president, Robert Everman, scheduled a meeting on Thursday for the board to appoint an interim superintendent of its own.
Hofmeister sent a letter (embedded below) to Everman and the Western Heights board on Wednesday as a formal notice that proceeding with the meeting would be in violation of the state board’s conditions of continued accreditation.
The letter also warned the district that any action to alter or destroy records may be in violation of law and/or deemed to interfere with the authority and obligations of the State Auditor, the State Department of Education and state board after the SDE received evidence indicating that the district shredded a large volume of documents.
Western Heights board contests state’s authority
“They’ve not once been able to point out any statutory authorization that gives them the right to appoint, or employ, a superintendent, interim superintendent, assistant superintendent or any other employee of an independent school district, which is what Western Heights is,” legal counsel for Western Heights, Jerry Colclazier, said during the meeting. “Until I receive and Western Heights receives a court order from a judge, then I think this board is well within their right, and in fact has a duty, to follow the law and run this school district in the way that you best deem advisable.”
After Thursday’s meeting, NonDoc asked Colclazier why the board held the meeting and appointed Race as interim superintendent against the state board’s orders.
“The fact that somebody can write a letter is really not terribly meaningful. I can write a letter to you and say you need to move from your house, are you going to do that? Obviously not,” Colclazier said. “What if they voted that they wanted to take my car and destroy it? Am I going to let them do that? They can vote to do anything. The issue is whether or not they have the legal authority to do what they did and they don’t.”
After the meeting, Flatley said that she was shocked by the action her fellow board members took. She said that, going into the meeting, she didn’t know if the board was going to appoint Guthrie or someone different.
“My first thought was, Can we even be casting this vote? Is this even a valid meeting? Because we all received an email yesterday from the state board saying otherwise, effective July 12, which was Monday,” Flatley said. “My thought is, if we’re appointing someone completely different, now what? What’s about to happen? And that’s the part nobody really knows. I don’t even know what the state department is going to do next.”
At a meeting in June, the state board also approved a motion to request an investigative audit of the district by the State Auditor & Inspector’s Office.
On Wednesday, The Oklahoman reported that Western Heights community member Brianna Dodd had found 15 bags filled with shredded documents in a dumpster behind a district administration building on Monday. Dodd found pieces of check stubs and bank statements inside one of the bags.
Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater provided a statement to NonDoc Thursday morning regarding the Oklahoman’s story and the shredded documents.
“Yes, it is a serious concern to me and potentially unlawful,” Prater said.
The SDE and State Auditor will be at Western Heights on Friday to begin the on-site needs assessment as well as the investigative audit requested by the state board and by a citizens’ petition.
When asked if he knew anything about the shredded documents, Colclazier said he did not.
“We shred documents at the beginning of every school year. I’m not aware of any inappropriate shredding of documents,” Colclazier said.
‘The pressure is off our shoulders…’
Western Heights community members gathered outside before Thursday’s meeting to protest the board meeting and show support for the state’s takeover.
“Everybody’s so excited for Monty Guthrie to come in,” Dodd said. “We expect the state to clean house. We do expect that. But we also expect (Guthrie) to become a part of the family. He’s a very community-based person. We appreciate the state stepping in and appointing this man. Everything that we have come across is that he’s community-based, he’s been in education for 26 years, in the classroom. There’s a big change. Just his personality and the way he conducts himself, no one has a bad thing to say about him.”
Asked if she has turned the bags of shredded documents over to law enforcement, Dodd said a journalist sent her contact information to State Auditor & Inspector Cindy Byrd and said the auditor’s office would be in contact.
Dodd said she’s heard that the attitudes of teachers in the district have been on the upswing as well.
“Everybody has been so intimidated and so scared about everything due to Mannix Barnes and the administration,” Dodd said. “The pressure is off our shoulders and we have someone coming in who knows how to run a school, that knows how to put us back to where we were.”
Community members have said that the state board’s decision Monday represented a “step in the right direction” after many after years of turbulence for the district under Barnes’ leadership. Concerns cited by the state board regarding the operation of Western Heights 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.
(Update: This article was updated at 8:17 p.m. Thursday, July 15, to include details about the possession of the documents.)