Monday night’s Western Heights Public Schools Board agenda was notably void of items regarding the district’s FY 2021 audit — an absence that left some community members frustrated as the district remains under the control of the State Board of Education after having been put on probation in 2020.
During a required quarterly update at the May meeting of the state board, Western Heights interim Superintendent Brayden Savage said she had been warned by auditors of an “extremely lengthy” list of audit findings.
“We’ll have that at the next meeting,” Savage said after Monday’s meeting.
Community members are also awaiting a hearing, which has been rescheduled multiple times, regarding the revocation of the educator’s certificate of former and suspended Western Heights Superintendent Mannix Barnes, who has been accused of multiple types of mismanagement during his time at the district.
“His day is coming,” parent and community member Amy Boone said. “He can run from it as long as he wants. If the audit is as bad as I think it is, I think it pretty much seals his fate.”
Boone said she has also recently submitted a letter, embedded below, to the Western Heights Schools Board demanding that the board recoup the money that is still being paid to Barnes, even though he was removed from his position over a year ago. Savage confirmed that the board received the letter but did not provide comment.
The revocation hearing was most recently scheduled for May 25. However, Oklahoma State Department of Education Legal Counsel Brad Clark said the parties were granted a 60 day extension and that the hearing will now take place on July 25.
“The continuance was requested due to scheduling conflicts among legal counsel,” Clark said. “That was presented to the administrative law judge and we did not oppose that request.”
Clark said he doesn’t anticipate any further hearing delays.
“As we’ve thought all along, the application lays out exactly the reasons for that request for revocation, and even since the time of filing that application we’ve gathered additional information that supports the application,” Clark said.
Community members submit demand letter
The State Board of Education stripped Barnes of his educator’s certificate in June of 2021, about one month before voting to take over governance of the district and about two months after the state board had initially voted to place the district under probation.
Multiple issues of concern were 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.
Also of concern for community members is an employment contract for Barnes that was signed by Barnes, Western Heights Schools Board president Robert Everman, board clerk Latoya Johnson and board attorney Jerry Colclazier in June of 2021 without being placed on a board agenda. The new contract was also signed before the expiration of Barnes’ initial contract, which began in 2019 and was slated to end in June of 2022.
Barnes’ previous contract stated that, if fired without cause, he 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.
Boone said that on May 10 she sent the school board a demand letter, signed by ten registered voters living within the district, which requested that all “payments, included but not limited to salary, bonuses, benefits and attorney fees immediately cease and the board diligently seek the return of any and all monies paid by Western Heights School District on this unauthorized, unlawful or fraudulent contract with Mannix Barnes.”
“That contract is unauthorized and according to the law you can make a request to the school board, a demand rather, for them to recoup their money,” Boone said. “We have to get them to agree that the contract is unauthorized, which I don’t see them doing. But we’re going to try.”