When the Oklahoma State Board of Education voted unanimously Aug. 26 to ask for the resignation of Western Heights Public Schools Board Chairman Robert Everman, state board member Trent Smith said there were “a million reasons” for the request, “not the least of which are his incestuous business relationship with former superintendent Mannix Barnes (and) his blatant disregard for use of taxpayer dollars.”
Everman has been on the Western Heights board since 1997 and has served as its chairman since 2019. Barnes joined the board in 2013, and in 2019 Everman and other board members selected Barnes to become district superintendent at a base salary of $220,000, making him one of the highest paid superintendents in the state, even though he had no previous experience in education.
Over the next two years, the 2,729-student district in far west Oklahoma City fell into chaos. District leadership has faced allegations of financial mismanagement, retaliation claims, and disharmony in the school environment and community. More than 100 staff members have departed in the past two years, and student enrollment has declined 23 percent over the last year.
The district’s board is also currently under investigation by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation for claims of Open Meeting Act violations and misappropriations of funds by the school board and administration. The district is also undergoing an investigative audit by the State Auditor and Inspector’s Office.
In June, the State Board of Education stripped Barnes of his educator license. In July, the state board assumed governance of the district after Everman and his fellow Western Heights board members did not address the state board’s concerns.
Ideally, a district’s school board — led by its chairperson — should be responsible for oversight of its superintendent and ensure that district governance features checks and balances.
Mannix Barnes and Robert Everman, however, have a series of longstanding ties that the state board and many Western Heights parents say caused a breakdown of that supervisory relationship. Over the years, the two men have been involved in a number of business partnerships and other associations, making the Western Heights debacle just the latest in a string of controversies that have accompanied their careers.
‘I feel like it’s definitely a conflict of interest’
More than 30 years before he became district superintendent, Mannix Barnes was a starting running back on the football team at Western Heights High School, where he lettered for four years in football, basketball and track and was a Mr. Western Heights candidate.
After graduating in 1987, Barnes went on to accumulate a wide array titles, including: Cheyenne and Arapaho tax commissioner, Lucky Star Casino general manager, executive director of Lawyers for Working Oklahomans, press secretary for former House Speaker Larry Adair (D-Stilwell), chief of staff for the Oklahoma Department of Labor under Commissioner Lloyd Fields, president and CEO of the Lupus Foundation of Oklahoma, interim director of Community Health Charities’ Oklahoma chapter, and CEO of OneFire Holdings.
But the past 30 years have also featured a number of professional hiccups. Barnes was expelled from the OU College of Dentistry in 1993 for helping another student cheat — a decision he appealed but which was upheld by the Oklahoma Supreme Court in 1995. He lost a legislative race as a Republican in 1998 and finished runner up in a state Democratic Party chairperson election in 2011.
Robert Everman has been present at a number of turns in the winding career of Mannix Barnes.
Based on a review of online information, government documents and conversations with parties involved, Mannix Barnes and Robert Everman have overlapped their professional careers in at least the following ways:
- Barnes worked as the manager of Lucky Star Casino from 2014 to 2017, during which time he hired Everman as chief financial officer. Employees managed by Barnes at the time anonymously expressed complaints of mistreatment;
- Barnes served as the president and CEO of the Lupus Foundation of Oklahoma, where Everman was a board member and Everman’s wife, Nancy Everman, serves as president. The foundation recently had its 501(c)3 status revoked by the IRS for failing to file 990 forms for three consecutive years. While Barnes joined the foundation around 2012, it is not clear if or when he left. Multiple calls to the Oklahoma Lupus Foundation have not been returned. However, Barnes is still listed as the principal officer on the Guide Star website;
- From 2017 to 2019, Barnes served as CEO of OneFire Holding Company, LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Muscogee Nation that manages the tribe’s commercial holdings. Everman served as Barnes’ chief operating officer;
- In 2012, Barnes served as the interim director of Community Health Charities of Oklahoma, where Everman was on the board. Everman and other board members were ousted by the group’s member charities in 2012. Everman said they were kicked out because they had been conducting an investigation into financial irregularities;
- Barnes was chief of staff at the Oklahoma Department of Labor from 2007 to 2011, where Everman was chief financial officer and administrative assistant during the same years. Barnes and his boss, Commissioner of Labor Lloyd Fields, were sued by a former employee who said she experienced retaliation for her political views. The lawsuit was settled in 2009 for $200,000, funded by Oklahoma taxpayers.
Barnes and Everman also both currently serve on the Oklahoma City Police Department’s Citizens Advisory Board.
Western Heights community member Brianna Dodd, who has been outspoken in her calls for resignations from Barnes, Everman and other school board members, said she believes Barnes’ and Everman’s past associations and present membership on the OKCPD advisory board present a conflict of interest.
“The fact that they both serve on the police advisory board and we have, for whatever reason, numerous police show up at our board meetings to protect them, I feel like that’s a use of their power being on the advisory board,” Dodd said. “I feel like it’s definitely a conflict of interest. We did get the conflict of interest to the board as well as the superintendent himself, and they laughed at us when we brought it before them.”
Asked about his history of professional connections to Robert Everman, Barnes told NonDoc he cannot comment owing to pending litigation involving the district and the revocation process for his educator certificate.
“This is all in the middle of litigation, so I can’t speak,” Barnes said. “Judges and everybody else frown upon all of that, so I just would rather not comment at this time.”
Everman was approached for a statement after a recent board meeting, but he did not comment.
‘I understand that Mr. Barnes was not a trustworthy person’
After the state board announced in July that it would take control of the Western Heights district, Dodd told media that she found 15 trash bags in a dumpster behind the administration building that appeared to contain shredded financial records.
The incident echoed another departure in Barnes’ past.
Cheryl Williams served as finance director for Commissioner of Labor Mark Costello, who easily ousted Fields in 2010. The election was largely defined by drama surrounding political signs hanging outside the Department of Labor offices, a clash between Fields and the Oklahoma Public Employees Association, and a 2008 incident where Fields was detained by police after people said he attempted to steal a professional bull rider’s guitar.
Williams said the transition between the Fields and Costello administrations was not a peaceful one.
“I understand that Mr. Barnes was not a trustworthy person,” Williams said. “We walked in, and shredders were full. You could tell offices had been cleared out pretty well. There was not a good handover. It was not a cordial handover.”
Jim Marshall served as chief of staff for Costello and said the handover was made more difficult by a large purchase of computers made just before Fields left his position as commissioner of labor.
“What I can say is that Mark Costello was greeted on his first day in office with a significant purchase of computers,” Marshall said. “There was no previous budgeting for the computers, because you have to put that in your budget for the fiscal year, and it was a fair amount of money for such a small agency. It was done as an act of mischievousness, to pull funds out of other accounts that needed those funds to buy some equipment that wasn’t budgeted for. It was meant to do harm to the incoming Costello administration.”
Marshall said he can’t say what role either Barnes or Everman played in the computer purchases, but he said that, in his experience, an expense of that size and the movement of money between accounts for the purchase would not occur without at least the acknowledgement, if not the approval, of the chief of staff.
Marshall and Williams both said they heard from employees that there was a “heavy handedness” from the Fields administration. Williams described the employees as “scared to breathe.”
“I knew a number of employees from my previous tenure at the agency, and they conveyed to me that there was some heavy handedness there and that they were relieved a new administration was coming in,” Marshall said.
There have also been complaints from people who crossed paths with Barnes at other points in his career, including at the Lucky Star Casinos, where Barnes was general manager from 2014 to 2017.
A 2017 Facebook post by a Cheyenne Arapaho Tribal Council page referred to Barnes as “much despised,” and a 2015 post detailed complaints from anonymous sources who worked under Barnes at Lucky Star. They alleged mistreatment of staff, low morale, failure to pay employees, and “degrading” behavior toward female employees, among other things.
One complaint read, “Also (Cheyenne and Arapaho) tribal members should ask why Mannix Barnes was allowed to hire his friend, Robert Everman, as CFO. Both have no experience in gaming and the CFO has no degree. Both are not tribal members.”
Barnes is an enrolled citizen of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma, and Everman is a citizen of the Choctaw Nation, according to their bios on the OKCPD Citizens Advisory Board page.
When Williams, the former Department of Labor employee, saw Barnes had been chosen for the superintendent position at Western Heights in 2019, she initially felt surprise.
“I was like, ‘Oh boy. What are you thinking?'” Williams said. “But now I understand. If Robert Everman was on the board helping to pull the strings, it makes total sense now.”
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‘An incestuous culture that’s ripe for the demise of an organization’
At the time the Western Heights Board hired Barnes as superintendent, Everman said his friend had been selected for the position because of his “business mind.”
“I’ve worked with [Barnes] for many, many years, and I think that gives me a perspective on how he operates as a CEO. He and I work very well together,” Everman told News 9 in 2019. “The status quo won’t work anymore, frankly, in education in general. I think there’s a lot of change that has to be made, and I think that’s one of the reasons we chose someone with a business mind — to get us moving in the right direction.”
Despite all the concerns that Barnes helped move the school district in the wrong direction, the board has continued to reward his performance.
The state board put the district’s accreditation on probation in April, but in June the Western Heights board voted 4-1 to renew Barnes’ contract for three years. The renewal included a $25,000 performance bonus.
Western Heights community members have been vocal in their displeasure about their district’s leadership. For months, some have gathered outside of the district’s board of education building before meetings to call for the resignations of Barnes, Everman, and three other board members: Linda Farley, Rosalind Cravens and Robert Sharp. The only exception to calls for resignations has been board member Briana Flatley, who was elected to the board in April and was the only board member to vote against Barnes’ renewal and bonus.
At the June State Board of Education meeting, State Department of Education legal counsel Brad Clark elaborated on what he called an incestuous relationship on governing boards and administrations between Mannix Barnes and Robert Everman.
“The pattern, one of them, is an incestuous culture that’s ripe for the demise of an organization,” Clark said.
As of the publication of this article, the Western Heights Public Schools Board has not officially responded to the state board’s call for Everman to resign.
While presenting the state board’s motion calling for Everman’s resignation, Trent Smith encouraged Western Heights community members to continue applying pressure.
“He is a scorn on your school district and a cancer in your midst, and he needs to be removed as soon as possible,” Smith said. “I only regret that we can’t do more today.”