Oklahoma County District Court Judge Aletia Timmons ruled today that Western Heights Public Schools must cede authority to the State Board of Education to oversee day-to-day operations of the district.
“The court is going to grant the writ of mandamus with regards to the actions of the State Board of Education, and I’m going to rule that the request made by the State Board of Education in their prayer for relief is granted in total—that the local school board is required to provide the acting interim superintendent that was appointed by the State Board of Education access to everything that he needs to do the job that he needs to do to get the school up and running in time for school to start on the 18th,” Timmons said during the hearing.
An emergency petition, filed by the state on July 22, states that the the Western Heights district has refused to perform certain acts required by law, including acknowledging the authority, powers and duties of the State Board of Education, State Department of Education and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister.
Earlier in July, the state board voted to take over governance of the troubled district for a year and appointed Monty Guthrie as interim superintendent. However, the district has continued to resist the state’s authority and even appointed an interim superintendent of its own.
“The position of the state is that the state collectively is vested with the authority to supervise, direct, govern, credit, supervise, establish positions, determine policies and oversee the public schools in the state,” State Department of Education legal counsel Brad Clark said. “The district would certainly be included in that as far as our position is concerned.”
‘There is ample authority’
During the hearing, Clark said that Western Heights’ position was that the district wouldn’t recognize the state board’s action without an order of the court.
News 9 reported last week that email correspondence between Western Heights-appointed interim superintendent Kim Race and Guthrie reveled that Race was told by Western Heights legal counsel Jerry Colclazier to not give Guthrie a space to work on campus.
During a hearing last week, Timmons gave Western Heights legal counsel Colclazier eight days to file a response to the state board’s writ of mandamus.
The district filed a 278-page response on Tuesday which argues that there is no statutory authority or clear legal duty for Western Heights to submit or allow the state board to control and operate the district.
“The fact is, we don’t believe that the State Board of Education has the power or the duty to operate local school districts. The State Board of Education can certainly set some standards, they can also, after a full individual proceeding, they can decide whether those standards have been met….” Colclazier said in court today. “What they can’t do is go in and operate a local school district. Specifically, they can’t employ a person to be the local interim superintendent or superintendent or a teacher or anything along those lines. They can’t force a local school district to take their discretion with regard to how to operate a local school district and replace it with the State Board of Education’s discretion.”
However, Timmons disagreed with Colclazier’s assessment, stating that the authority of the state board can be found in Section 13 of the Oklahoma Constitution.
“With regard to the petition for the writ regarding the state department, I think that there is ample authority for the fact that the State Board of Education has superintending and governing control over local public schools and the local public boards of education,” Timmons said.
Hofmeister: ‘This changes everything’
Hofmeister answered questions from the media via Zoom following the hearing.
“This changes everything,” Hofmeister said. “This puts him (Guthrie) in a place where he is working to support the families as their interim superintendent. He has now been granted access to everything to communicate directly with the teachers through email addresses and is going to be the acting superintendent there, conducting the important work to get all of the school children in the Western Heights district ready for school to begin.”
Hofmeister noted that there were only three working days left to get the district ready to welcome back students for the first day of school and was asked if there’s the potential to delay the start of the school year in light of issues that need to be addressed throughout the district.
“What I can tell you is that we’re not going to open until it’s safe and ready for children. But, I can’t determine that at this moment,” Hofmeister said. “There are people from the state department as well as interim superintendent Monty Guthrie on site right now. They are assessing the readiness and we will wait for their report back in meetings that we’ll have.”
Western Heights board member Briana Flatley provided a statement following the ruling.
“I appreciate and respect the judge’s ruling, and I look forward to working with Mr. Guthrie and the State Department of Education to resolve their concerns and refocus our attention on serving the needs of Western Heights’ students,” Flatley said.
Western Heights approves legal representation for Mannix Barnes
During a special meeting held by the Western Heights Board of Education Thursday morning, board members voted 4-1 to contract with the law firm Rubenstein and Pitts to provide legal counsel to former district superintendent Mannix Barnes as an individual for proceedings surrounding the suspension of his educator certificate by the state board in June.
To this point, Colclazier has represented Barnes as well as the school district. The contract with Rubenstein and Pitts includes a $20,000 retainer.
“An issue has been raised by the State Department of Education. The state department’s counsel indicated that he felt like Mr. Barnes should have his own counsel independent of the district’s counsel and for that reason Mr. Barnes has selected an attorney by the name of Leif Swedlow with Rubenstein and Pitts,” Colclazier said. “(In) the superintendent’s contract with the board, the same as every single superintendent contract that I’ve ever reviewed across the state, a typical clause is that the board of education or the district will tender a defense and provide legal counsel for the superintendent on issues exactly like this.”
Board member Briana Flatley, who cast the only “no” vote, said she reviewed Barnes’ contract the night before the meeting and expressed concerns over the district paying for his legal defense.
“I do worry that anything that deals with certification is pretty much outside the scope of what this board should be dealing with. That’s personal litigation,” Flatley said during the meeting.
Flatley also stated that the money could be used for needed repairs at school sites around the district.
“I’m just a little uneasy using our taxpayer money for personal litigation, because I think about this past week. I’ve viewed and walked all of our buildings with some of our admin here and I feel that this is money that could be going to buildings,” Flatley said. “These are things that could be going to the students, to the educators. We have them coming in next week, so we have a lot of facilities that do require immediate attention. I don’t think this is funding that needs to be going towards personal litigation. ”
Colclazier said he disagreed with Flatley’s interpretation of the contract and that the revocation filed against Barnes is based upon actions that allegedly occurred while he was superintendent of Western Heights.
“The contract is clear. We’re not asking for Mr. Barnes to be able to hire a divorce attorney or to hire an attorney to sue his neighbor. Those would be personal actions,” Colclazier said. “I think the contract does require the district to pay his cost for legal representation, and, to be honest with you, it’s not a hard call. It’s very clear. It’s why superintendents put this in their contract….”
Western Heights community member Brianna Dodd expressed frustration over the board’s move after the meeting.
“I hope that we’re allowed to take back the district and run it the way it needs to be ran,” she said after the meeting. “Like Briana Flatley stated, we’ve got mold in the building, we don’t have air conditioning in some of the buildings. We don’t even have a full football team. We don’t have busses to take our softball girls to their games. We don’t have anything to transport our students. We don’t have anything. So you’re telling me putting $20,000 towards a lawyer for Mannix Barnes is more important than fixing our busses to get out students here next week?”