Oklahoma education topics
Catch up on some #okaled topics as we head into the new year with this collection of headlines. (NonDoc)

As the end of the year approaches and we all attempt to slow down just a little, it appears the Oklahoma education news cycle didn’t get the memo.

In December alone, lawmakers have pre-filed education-related bills for the 2022 legislative session, more legal issues have arisen for Epic Charter Schools, candidates have thrown their hats into the ring for February school board elections and a school district has voted to close two elementary schools.

To keep you up to date on all this and more, the following collection of education headlines has been assembled for your consideration as we head into a new year.

Pre-filed bills seek to prohibit curriculum concepts

Earlier this month, Rep. Jim Olsen (R-Roland) filed HB 2988, which would prohibit the teaching of “certain concepts pertaining to America and slavery” in Oklahoma’s public schools and universities.

The bill specifically bans the use of the New York Times’ 1619 Project in classrooms that receive state funding.

The bill would also prohibit teaching that:

  • America has more culpability, in general, than other nations for the institution of slavery;
  • That one race is the unique oppressor in the institution of slavery;
  • That another race is the unique victim in the institution of slavery;
  • That America, in general, had slavery more extensively and for a later period of time than other nations;
  • The primary and overarching purpose for the founding of America was the initiation and perpetuation of slavery.

Sen. Rob Standridge (R-Norman) has also filed two education-related bills ahead of the 2022 legislative session.

If SB 1142 were to pass, no state-funded school could “maintain in its inventory or promote books that make as their primary subject the study of sex, sexual preferences, sexual activity, sexual perversion, sex-based classifications, sexual identity, or gender identity or books that are of a sexual nature that a reasonable parent or legal guardian would want to know of or approve of prior to their child being exposed to it.”

SB 1141 would prohibit colleges in the state from requiring students to take courses that are not a part of core graduation requirements.

The 2022 legislative session is scheduled to begin Feb. 6.

Ninnekah Public Schools lawsuit amended

An amended complaint has been filed in a lawsuit brought by 14 current and former Ninnekah Public Schools students regarding sexual misconduct allegations against the district’s former girls’ basketball coach Ronald Gene Akins.

News 9’s Augusta McDonnell reported that the amended complaint, filed Dec. 21, drops complaints against Friend Public Schools, the Grady County sheriff and sheriff’s office and officer Phillip Blevins. It also includes new accusations against former Ninnekah Superintendent Todd Bunch.

Bunch is accused of inviting two former female students, who had graduated from Ninnekah in May 2016, to an overnight conference in Oklahoma City in June 2016 and making inappropriate comments.

Midwest City-Del City Public Schools closing two elementary schools

Two elementary schools in Mid-Del Public Schools, Highland Park and Steed Elementary, will close in 2022 owing to declining enrollment, underused space and millions of dollars’ worth of deferred maintenance.

The Oklahoman’s Nuria Martinez-Keel reported that the decision was approved by the Mid-Del Board of Education at its December meeting, despite hopes from residents that the move would not be necessary. Superintendent Rick Cobb said the district could save $1.4 million per year by closing the schools and that the decision will not result in larger class sizes at the district’s 13 other elementary schools.

The Office of Educational Quality and Accountability, a K-12 consulting group that conducted a performance review of the Mid-Del district, had recommended that the district close four of its elementary schools permanently.

The two elementary schools are scheduled to close at the end of the current school year.

Suspended Western Heights superintendent still being paid

Western Heights, Mannix Barnes
Former Western Heights Superintendent Mannix Barnes, left, and the district’s legal counsel, Jerry Colclazier, head into Oklahoma County District Court Judge Aletia Timmons’ courtroom Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021. (Megan Prather)

A report and Twitter thread published by News 9’s Augusta McDonnell states that former Western Heights Public Schools Superintendent Mannix Barnes is still being paid by the district owing to a secret contract that would force the school district to pay out nearly $1 million if he were fired.

The three-year contract was signed June 22 by Western Heights Board of Education president Robert Everman, board attorney Jerry Colclazier, Barnes and board clerk Latoya Johnson. Barnes had his educator certificate suspended by the State Board of Education on June 24.

Barnes’ previous contract — which still had a year left on it when the new contract was approved — stated that, if fired without cause, Barnes would receive severance pay equal to his base salary for one year or for the rest of the term of the contract, whichever amount is less. The new contract stated that Barnes will receive whichever is more.

As superintendent, Barnes received a salary of $220,000, one of the highest superintendent salaries in the state. If the district had fired Barnes over the summer owing to his certificate suspension, he would have been paid more than $700,000.

The state board voted to take control of Western Heights in July after expressing the “utmost concern” about district operations.

McDonnell continues to look into various education topics in the state during Education Watch Oklahoma, which airs on News 9 at 7 p.m. Tuesdays. Recent topics have included state assessments and data, food and housing insecurity for students and how school districts rebuild after tragic storm events.

Rule process for HB 1775 gets complicated

The passage earlier this year of HB 1775, which prohibits the teaching of certain concepts regarding race and gender in public schools, launched a complicated rule-making process as the State Board of Education figured out how to implement the law

The Oklahoman’s Nuria Martinez-Keel reported that state officials had considered drastic penalties for schools found to be in violation of HB 1775 and that general counsel Lori Murphy resigned from her role as administrative rules liaison and attestation officer after objecting to the state’s handling of the process.

Under emergency rules approved in July, teachers who violate HB 1775 could lose their educator certificates and school districts could face a lowering of their accreditation status to “accredited with deficiency.” School districts must also implement a process for students, parents, teachers and members of the public to submit complaints if they believe HB 1775 has been violated.

The State Department of Education will collect public comment on the rules beginning Jan. 3 for 30 days and will vote on a final proposal after public comment is reviewed. The rules will be submitted to the Oklahoma Legislature for final approval.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit challenging HB 1775 in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma in October.

Epic Charter Schools saga continues

Epic Charter Schools will have about $9.1 million of state-allocated funding withheld by the State Department of Education over the next year. (Megan Prather)

Epic Charter Schools continues to deal with legal battles after the organization’s original co-founders, David Chaney and Ben Harris, filed a breach of conflict lawsuit for $6.84 million on behalf of their company, Epic Youth Services.

The school’s governing board, Community Strategies, voted to cut ties with Epic Youth Services at a meeting in May. The Oklahoman’s Nuria Martinez-Keel reported that the lawsuit, which was filed in Oklahoma County District Court on Dec. 8, states that EYS helped the school system migrate data to a new technology vendor from July 1 through Sept. 30.

At its December meeting, the State Board of Education voted to withhold $9.1 million in state-allocated funding from Epic over the next year owing to over-expenditures on administrative costs identified in an investigative audit completed by the State Auditor & Inspector’s Office last year. Epic plans to seek reimbursement from EYS for the funding shortage the charter schools will face.

Also in December, Epic board member Kathren Stehno submitted a resignation letter that included allegations of misconduct against the board’s chairman, Paul Campbell, and encouraged state authorities to investigate Epic’s current leadership. The letter’s digital footprint lists its author as William Hickman, Epic’s longtime attorney whose spouse was also a longtime Epic employee under the schools’ prior leadership. Stehno told Oklahoma Watch’s Jennifer Palmer that Bill Hickman reviewed the letter before she distributed it.

State Auditor & Inspector Cindy Byrd has said the criminal investigation of EYS and former Epic leadership remains ongoing.

School districts to hold February bond elections

Don’t look now, but 2022 elections are right around the corner. Edmond Public Schools will present two bond propositions worth a total of $120 million to voters during the election slated for Feb. 8.

The first proposition totals $17 million, with funds slated for school improvements, classroom additions and the purchasing of land for the construction of new schools in the future to meet the needs of the growing district. The second proposition, which totals about $3 million, will be used on district transportation.

In the Choctaw-Nicoma Park School District, voters will be asked to approve two bond issues totaling about $282 million. Funds from the first bond proposition, totaling about $273 million, will be used for improvements to school buildings. The second proposition would provide about $9 million in funding to purchase transportation equipment for the district.

There will be a total of 38 Oklahoma school districts with bond propositions on the February election ballot. Visit the Oklahoma Election Board website for a full list.

Candidates file for school board elections

November election
Voters headed to the polls on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021 to cast their ballots on city, county and school bond propositions. (Megan Prather)

In February, voters will also head to the polls to vote in various school board elections across the state. State law specifies that the primary elections for school district board seats will be held Tuesday, Feb 8. However, if only two candidates file for a seat, there will be no primary election for that position and the candidates will face off in the general election on Tuesday, April 5.

In Oklahoma County, 14 public school districts are set to hold school board elections including Bethany, Choctaw-Nicoma Park, Crooked Oak, Crutcho, Deer Creek, Edmond, Harrah, Jones, Luther, Midwest City-Del City, Millwood, Oakdale, Oklahoma City and Putnam City. In Cleveland County, school districts including Norman, Moore, Noble, Lexington, Little Axe and Robin Hill will hold board elections.

Western Heights Public Schools, in Oklahoma County, was also slated to hold an election for Seat 2 of the school board. However, incumbent Rosalind Cravens declined to seek re-election, leaving the only challenger, Darrin Dunkin, the winner of the seat by default.

Full lists of municipal and school board candidates have been posted by the Cleveland County Election Board and the Oklahoma County Election Board. Voters elsewhere in Oklahoma can contact their county election boards to request a list of candidates who have filed for the upcoming election.