In a meeting that was unusually cheerful after years of controversy and drama, members of the Western Heights Public Schools Board took a number of actions Monday night aimed at turning over a new leaf for the troubled district on the southwest edge of Oklahoma City.
As the audience cheered each action, board members accepted the resignation of three controversial former members, elected a new president and vice president, heard a long-awaited accreditation report, terminated a legal services contract with Jerry Colclazier, voted to dismiss a lawsuit with the State Board of Education and approved a settlement agreement with former Superintendent Mannix Barnes.
The district has faced a number of controversies over the years, many of which involved the cast of characters now formally removed from Western Heights after the meeting.
‘Fought this battle that got you here’
Fighting back tears at the start of Monday night’s meeting, interim Superintendent Brayden Savage welcomed newly appointed board member Jerome Johnson.
“This day is something that the people of this community have been looking to for a long time,” Savage said. “And we’re so excited for tonight and the amazing things to come.”
Gov. Kevin Stitt appointed Johnson to the board’s District 5 seat on Dec. 3 after three members resigned simultaneously Nov. 15, denying the five-seat board a quorum.
When the board reached Monday’s agenda item to accept those resignations of former President Robert Everman, Robert Sharp and Linda Farley, the audience gave a standing ovation.
The three board members had twice caused the cancellation of Western Heights board meetings in October and November through their absence. The day after they declined to appear for the November meeting, the three members resigned.
Parents and former educators in the district had regularly shouted at those board members at previous meetings, often calling them a “disgrace” and asking for their resignations.
Sharp and Farley had often voted with Everman on district matters, allowing the three-person majority to attempt to oppose OSDE’s takeover of the district in July 2021 and to continue to employ former Superintendent Mannix Barnes, even after he was suspended as a result of the takeover. Before working together at Western Heights, Barnes and Everman had a long relationship of business dealings that some called “incestuous.”
Both issues were resolved Monday night, when board members dismissed with prejudice the district’s lawsuit against OSDE regarding its takeover and accepted a settlement that included Barnes’ resignation effective Dec. 31.
In a Facebook post, the district further clarified the terms of its settlement with Barnes:
After much consideration, and at the advice of the new legal counsel, the WH Board of Education decided to approve a settlement agreement with Mr. Mannix Barnes. Although we know this decision may not be popular, the decision was made based on the understanding of the length of the trial, the legal time frame and the legal fees associated with the situation, and the amount of money paid out during the trial to Mr. Barnes, as well as the emotional stress it places on our community and staff members.
The agreed settlement is approximately $150,000. In lieu, Mr. Barnes cannot sue the district in the future, and he must turnover his Oklahoma Educators Certificate on or before December 31st, 2022.
It is our hope that the district will be able to move forward, in unity, as we start afresh and anew for our students, staff, families, and community.
Prior to the settlement agreement, OSDE had been pursuing litigation to revoke Barnes’ educator certificate and terminate his employment. If he had not reached the settlement agreement, delays in the adjudication of those cases could have resulted in Barnes — whose contracted salary was still $220,000 after his suspension — making more money simply through payroll and his contract-mandated $75,000 retention bonus.
“I’m happy with the settlement,” Barnes said when reached for comment Tuesday afternoon.
The two members of the board who remained after Everman, Sharp and Farley’s resignations are Brianna Flatley and Darrin Dunkin. They were elected board president and vice president, respectively, on Monday night.
“Please remember that parents, teachers, staff and the community fought this battle that got you here,” parent Amy Boone told board members during the meeting’s public comment portion. “I don’t ever want to have to go through what we have these past two and a half years again, but I would. I would stand with this school community again and again until we have achieved every goal that we have.”
The board announced in its meeting and on Facebook that it is currently seeking applications to fill its other two vacant seats. The term for one of those seats — the third district — expires in 2023. At the conclusion of the filing period on Dec. 7, three candidates had filed to run for that seat’s next term.
Also Monday, the board finally heard an accreditation report for fiscal year 2023, which had been delayed multiple times. The audience cheered yet again after a district official told members that WHPS was on track to meet all of OSDE’s requirements and deadlines for district operations and finances.
“I know our district’s heading in the right direction, and I knew you guys would be pleased to hear this,” the official said.
The board also voted to continue the employment of Savage, who became interim superintendent in February at the direction of OSDE. Additionally, with the firing of Colclazier, who had been the board’s legal counsel, board members approved a contract with the Center for Education Law to be the district’s new counsel.