school district overpayments
Members of the Oklahoma State Board of Education chat with state Superintendent Joy Hofmeister before a meeting on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022. (Bennett Brinkman)

In a two-hour meeting today, Oklahoma State Board of Education members requested the State Auditor and Inspector’s Office conduct an audit of “school districts which may have received more state aid than they were entitled to in 2014” in response to a lawsuit that concluded two years ago regarding an error in the way state aid was calculated and distributed.

Board members also took action on items for Western Heights Public Schools as they celebrated the Tuesday resignations of three Western Heights board members, including President Robert Everman.

In 2016, four school districts filed a lawsuit against the State Department of Education, Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister, the Oklahoma Tax Commissioner and then-State Treasurer Ken Miller alleging that a mistake in how state aid to school districts is calculated caused them to be underpaid for 23 years, from 1991 to 2014. The school districts bringing the case argued that other districts that were overpaid because of the mistake should repay the excessive amounts to the underpaid districts.

The case went to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which released a 78-page opinion, embedded below, in June 2020 stating that while the districts were underpaid, they cannot force overpaid districts to repay excess funds, and they cannot “compel the State Board of Education to fund a lapsed appropriation.”

According to the opinion, appropriations lapse 30 months after the state Legislature creates them.

However, the Supreme Court opinion does allow OSDE to conduct an audit of the districts that were overpaid, and it also states that “a school district possesses a legal right to a proper apportionment of state aid regardless of excessive payments made to other districts.”

The opinion also says the Oklahoma statute “which creates an affirmative duty on the State Board to make a demand for an overpayment of funds also states this demand is based upon the state auditor and inspector approving auditors who shall audit the funds of the public school district.”

As a result of the guidelines laid out in the opinion, after a lengthy executive session discussing the case, state board members requested an audit of districts who may have received too much aid.

District needs ‘willing candidates that aren’t nuts’

State board members also took action on Western Heights, the troubled school district in southwest Oklahoma City that the state board assumed control over in July 2021.

After celebrating Tuesday’s resignation of three Western Heights board members, Trent Smith acknowledged the challenge Everman, Farley and Sharp created by resigning together and denying the five-person board a quorum.

Explaining that Gov. Kevin Stitt had asked state board members to put together a list of candidates so that he can appoint a member to Western Heights’ board — allowing for a three-member quorum — Smith said he is working with community leaders to “identify willing candidates that aren’t nuts” to give to the governor’s office by Thanksgiving.

Then, as members of the meeting’s audience clapped, Smith turned to Western Heights Superintendent Brayden Savage and said, “We cannot wait to give you your school district back.”

In the meantime, OSDE legal counsel Travis Jett explained that the State Board of Education’s takeover of the district allows it to govern the district while its own board cannot do so.

“We’ve got to keep this district moving forward,” Jett said.

Despite the fact that Western Heights’ most recent board meeting on Monday was cancelled, state board members approved seven items from the agenda for that meeting which are mostly related to personnel.

Savage explained each of the items the board voted on. The items included approving adjunct teachers, accepting resignations and firing one support employee who failed to show up for work. The board also approved three encumbrances, a contract agreement and a curriculum to help students with learning loss from the pandemic.

After the board’s action and Smith’s comments, Hofmeister also celebrated the change for Western Heights.

“I am excited for a new chapter that is certainly unfolding today,” Hofmeister said. “I know that there’s been a lot of time where there were unknowns. And I know this is an unknown, though, that comes with some hope.”

Read the full Oklahoma Supreme Court opinion

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