The Oklahoma State Department of Education’s takeover of Western Heights Public Schools and its suspension of controversial Superintendent Mannix Barnes was upheld today by Oklahoma County District Court Judge Aletia Timmons.
Timmons’ decision to deny the struggling southwest-OKC school district’s requests came after several hours of testimony Monday and Tuesday from Barnes, Western Heights’ attorney and legal counsel for the OSDE. The state education agency exercised its authority to assume control of the district’s operations in July following mass student and teacher exodus, allegations of financial mismanagement and extreme disharmony in the school environment.
In announcing her ruling, Timmons said Tuesday that there was no clause under the Oklahoma Administrative Procedures Act entitling Barnes to individual proceedings prior to the emergency suspension of his educator certificate and that the emergency grounds cited by the state to suspend his license were valid. Timmons outlined a number of problems within the school district that led to her ruling, including:
- alleged misuse of bond funding in a way that was a “detriment” to the district and “fiscally irresponsible”;
- the cessation of nutrition services in the spring 2020 and conflicting testimony over how long students were not provided those services;
- certain fire sprinklers being out of commission from Feb. 21 through April 27, despite students utilizing those rooms for tutoring.
“It is the superintendent’s job and responsibility to make sure that those things don’t occur, and he wholly failed to take care of that,” Timmons said regarding the fire sprinkler issue. “That is an emergency and issue of great [importance] for the parents and school district.”
Timmons said she also saw clear evidence of disharmony in the school community, owing to multiple parental complaints and a loss of personnel that affected the district’s ability to provide services to students.
“We’ll definitely appeal,” Western Heights legal counsel Jerry Colclazier told NonDoc after the ruling. “I think the hearing went fine. It was clear from the evidence that there was no emergency. There was no basis for suspending Superintendent Barnes on an emergency basis. The judge disagrees. That happens.”
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister released a statement following the ruling demanding that Western Heights Board of Education President Robert Everman resign and that Colclazier stop pursuing litigation at the taxpayers expense.
“When the families of Western Heights spoke out, we listened and we acted, Today’s ruling by Judge Timmons supports our actions and shows that the law is clear,” Hofmeister’s statement reads. “The State Board of Education and the Oklahoma State Department of Education have the authority to respond and intervene in a school district when students’ needs are willfully disregarded and unmet, when fiscal management is recklessly inadequate, and when community voices have gone unheard for too long. Every step of this court battle, we have prevailed. But most importantly, this is a victory for Western Heights students, families and the community.”
A lengthy legal battle for Western Heights
In their lawsuit, Western Heights and former Superintendent Mannix Barnes requested the court to order a preliminary injunction prohibiting the State Department of Education, State Board of Education and Hofmeister from taking further “adverse” action against the district and that the emergency suspension of Barnes’ educator certificate be vacated and that all rights and interests afforded to him prior to the suspension be returned until all parties are granted a hearing.
The motion also requested declaratory judgment that the state has no authority to suspend a superintendent on an emergency basis until the superintendent is provided an individual proceeding under the Oklahoma Administrative Procedures Act. Colclazier also argued that the state had no legal authority to appoint an interim superintendent.
Monday’s testimony centered around the State Board of Education’s June decision to suspend Barnes’ educator certificate.
Colclazier largely argued that none of the claims made by the state at the meeting in June constituted an emergency. (The OSDE had referenced he district’s failure to provide in-person instruction from March 2020 to March 2021, problems with the nutrition program and loss of district staff.)
At a State Board of Education meeting on March 25, board members approved a motion requiring Western Heights administrators to appear at an April 9 board meeting to discuss the district’s accreditation.
But no Western Heights representative attended the April 9 meeting, leading board members to place the district’s accreditation on probation. They cited an array of issues at the district, including:
- failure to provide in-person instruction since March 2020;
- a decision in the spring of 2020 not to provide nutritional services to students;
- an audit report showing violations of state law, including the use of 2018 bond proceeds to pay off debt instead of facility improvements;
- a board member consuming alcohol during a public meeting;
- a 23 percent drop in student enrollment, from 3,365 to 2,597, in one year;
- a loss of more than 100 staff members in the past two years;
- disharmony in the school environment and community.
Barnes claimed in court Monday that he did not attend the April 9 meeting because he believed the district’s accreditation had already been put on probation at the March 25 meeting. However, Barnes and Colclazier did attend the state board meeting on April 22 where Barnes read a letter to board members regarding the actions he was taking surrounding the district’s probation.
At a meeting on July 12, the state board voted to suspend Barnes’ educator certificate in June and ultimately voted to amend the conditions of Western Heights’ probation to include full state intervention for up to a year.
In August, Timmons ruled that Western Heights must acknowledge the authority of the state board after the state filed an emergency petition stating that the district had 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 Hofmeister.
At that hearing, Colclazier argued there was no statutory authority or clear legal duty for the district to allow the state board to control and operate the district. Colclazier attempted to take the case to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, but the court declined to hear it.
Despite Timmons’ ruling in August, Everman and other board members continued to defy state instructions. The board’s September meeting was highlighted by competing meeting agendas, one from Everman and one from state-appointed interim Superintendent Monty Guthrie. Despite pushback from community members during that meeting, Colclazier argued that “the president of the Board of Education has absolute power to set the details of the meeting.”
At a state board meeting in August, board members unanimously voted to call for the resignation of Everman, with board member Trent Smith asking parents and district stakeholders to “continue to put as much pressure on Mr. Everman as possible.”
Western Heights parents and community members have continued to gather outside of board meetings to call for the resignations of Everman, board member Rosalind Cravens, board member Linda Farley and board member Robert Sharp.