The Oklahoma State Board of Education holds its regular meeting on Thursday, May 26, 2022. (Megan Prather)

District officials from Western Heights, Ninnekah and Oologah-Talala Public Schools, all of which are currently under probation, provided their required quarterly updates at Thursday’s State Board of Education meeting.

State Department of Education staff also had to deal with a bizarre situation when a man named Khris McAfee, who had traveled from Arizona with his young daughter to speak during public comment about a series of books he authored, was detained during the meeting owing to a child-custody issue.

“We were informed of a custody issue regarding a father and daughter at the board of education meeting this morning. We detained the father and child while we investigated,” Sarah Stewart, director of media operations for the Department of Public Safety, said in a statement. “It was determined the father had violated a court order. We released the father and were told out-of-custody charges would be filed against him in Arizona. We are holding the child until a family member can arrive to take her home.”

A short while after McAfee returned to his seat after public comment, a security guard for the OSDE silently escorted him out of the room. McAfee’s daughter remained seated in the room for about 20 minutes before the security guard returned to escort her out of the meeting to be looked after by OSDE staff.

The little girl appeared to still be in the OSDE building when the meeting concluded a little after 1 p.m.

During the meeting, board members also convened in executive session to discuss ongoing litigation regarding Epic Charter Schools and the educator certificates of 10 individuals.

‘Has there been true change?’

Ninnekah Public Schools interim Superintendent Robyn Morse and the district’s Title IX coordinator, Regina Jones, were in attendance at the day’s meeting to discuss the progress the district has made regarding probation.

Ninnekah Schools had its accreditation placed under probation by the state board in September following sexual assault allegations against former teacher and girls’ basketball coach Ronald Gene Akins.

Akins was charged with two counts of sexual battery and two counts of rape by instrumentation in Grady County District Court in June of last year, stemming from allegations by three former players. Since then, 15 former players have come forward in a federal lawsuit against Ninnekah Schools, former Superintendent Todd Bunch, former high school principal David Pitts and the district Akins worked at prior to Ninnekah. The suit claims that district leadership and staff knew or should have known about the abuse.

“What we worked on this year was creating policy and procedures  for Title IX team members as far as roles and responsibilities,” Jones said during the meeting. “One of the biggest things we needed to make sure of was that our students were able to have access to make a Title IX report or just report anything going on that’s bothering them.”

Jones said the district has started to utilize Stopit, an anonymous reporting app, to give students more freedom to make a report. She said she can pull data from the app to make plans for programs that may need to be implemented.

Board member Brian Bobek urged district officials to use an independent, third-party entity to conduct a community survey in order to receive candid responses regarding improvements that still need to be made.

“It’s a real concern of mine as far as what is the healing process? What is the culture? Has there been true change?” Bobek said during the meeting. “I would like to have those results back to our board so we can hear candid responses.”

Jones said she hoped to do a community survey this year, but, owing to scheduling, it has been moved to the beginning of the upcoming school year.

‘Soaring to new heights’

Oologah-Talala Public Schools Superintendent David Wilkins and school board president Brent Kellogg were in attendance at Thursday’s meeting to provide an update on their district, which had its accreditation dropped to probationary status in 2020 owing to the mishandling of five sexual misconduct allegations against employees of the district at the time.

“We had massive distrust in our community, high turnover rate among school administrators, there had been some very public terminations and obviously the issues that led us here today,” Kellogg said. “I understand culture trumps everything. I’ve worked hand-in-hand with Wilkins to reshape and reform our culture at Oologah-Talala Public Schools from top to bottom.”

Kellogg said probation has brought about changes such as more intentional training and the tightening of various school district policies. The district has also started to utilize the Stopit app to allow students to submit anonymous concerns regarding Title IX violations, mental health and bullying.

Western Heights Public Schools interim Superintendent Brayden Savage reported on progress made in the district regarding human resources, communication, operations/compliance and community support.

“In the area of communication, we’ve held many many sessions to elicit feedback from internal and external stakeholders,” Savage said. “We’re working really hard to build the brand of ‘soaring to new heights’ to make sure, with the negative things that have been said about us, that we are working to show that there are lots of great things happening in the district.”

Western Heights was placed under probation in April of last year owing to an array of concerns cited by the state board, including:

  • failure to provide in-person instruction from March 2020 through April 2021;
  • 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 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 previous year, and a loss of more than 100 staff members in the previous two years;
  • disharmony in the school environment and community.

“We have all kinds of auditors at all times on site, it seems, so we’re getting a lot of good practices in procedures that they’re telling us about,” Savage said. “We’re still working on the audit for FY 21. I’ve been warned that there’s an extremely lengthy list of findings.”

Savage said she’s received a lot of support from superintendents statewide as she continues to bring the district into compliance with the corrective action plan provided by the state board. She also complimented the district’s principals for their work.

“Our site principals really held a lot together. They have a heart for kids,” Savage said. “Since you can’t fix all 200 things at once, my plan going forward is to really focus on having a collaborative team in the administration building to get things done to support our sites.”

Corrective actions taken by the Western Heights district so far include, but are not limited to:

  • hiring a director of ESSER and extended learning;
  • making key personnel changes;
  • board-approved retention and recruitment stipends;
  • The addition of social workers at every school site in the district;
  • hosting listening sessions to garner feedback from internal and external stakeholders;
  • addressing HVAC issues caused by poor maintenance;
  • working on finance department processes and procedures;
  • increased communication in Spanish;
  • searching for a new chief financial officer;
  • adding two instructional technology coaches for the 2022-23 school year;
  • adding additional teaching positions to decrease class sizes.

When asked about her relationship with the other members of the Western Heights school board, several of whom were supportive of former district superintendent Mannix Barnes, who was removed from the post by the state board in August 2021.  Savage said they’ve been cordial.

“I have several board members that are very much advocates to the things that we’re doing,” Savage said. “I’ve had four meetings, there have not been issues yet. But we’ve just now started the personnel change over, so I know I may have plenty of questions about those things.”

Ten educator certificates revoked

Board members entered executive session to discuss ongoing litigation with Epic Charter Schools as well as the educator certificates of Nathan Brewer, Roland Butler, Charles Copeland, Derek Fleeman, Charles Heaverin, Blaine Huffington, Andee Lantz, Alberto Morejo, Deja Vogt and Colt Wooley.

While no action was taken following executive session regarding Epic, board members did vote to revoke the teaching certifications of the ten former educators, who have faced various allegations of improper behavior.

State Board of Education legal counsel Travis Jett confirmed with State Department of Education legal counsel Brad Clark during the meeting that none of the ten individuals showed up to their administrative law judge hearings regarding the revocations.