sovereign community school, western heights intervention
State Board of Education members chat before the start of their meeting Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022. (Bennett Brinkman)

The Oklahoma State Board of Education has lifted its 17-month intervention into Western Heights Public Schools, but the board’s course of action regarding another troubled public school remains unclear.

During a four-hour meeting Thursday afternoon that featured some tense moments, board members relinquished the control they had assumed over Western Heights in July 2021 owing to financial and leadership issues in the southwest Oklahoma City district.

Meanwhile, state board members delayed a vote on the proposed termination of Sovereign Community School’s charter to next month’s meeting agenda.

Thursday’s gathering, livestreamed on Facebook, also marked State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister’s final  meeting after eight years chairing the board and leading the Oklahoma State Department of Education.

“What an honor and a privilege it has been to serve as state superintendent of public instruction,” Hofmeister said.

Addressing her monthly report primarily to Oklahoma teachers, Hofmeister spoke of her accomplishments in office and acknowledged the challenges still facing the state’s education system.

“Your voices as teachers are critical if Oklahoma hopes to create and maintain a public education system that our children and families deserve,” Hofmeister said. “But Oklahoma needs to do more than merely listen to our teachers. Teacher flight remains a crisis that calls for a multifaceted approach.”

Hofmeister then called for further pay raises for teachers and praised them for the “important work” that they do.

“You are the bedrock of public education in Oklahoma, and you are my heroes,” Hofmeister said.

Fate of Sovereign Community School looms

State Board of Education
The State Board of Education held a special meeting on Friday, April 9, 2021 to discuss the charter authorization of Sovereign Community School and the accreditation of Western Heights Public Schools. (Megan Prather)

Board members spent two and a half hours of Thursday’s meeting in an increasingly heated discussion about a possible action to notify Sovereign Community School of their intent to terminate sponsorship of the school.

SCS is a charter school for indigenous students located in northern Oklahoma City. Since it opened in 2019, the charter school has faced a number of problems relating to almost all aspects of the school’s operation, including issues with low enrollment, poor finances and subpar academic scores, OSDE general counsel Brad Clark said in a presentation.

According to Clark, the school has been on probation since November 2020 and is at least $500,000 in debt.

“The risk of insolvency (for the school) is day to day, month by month, in our opinion,” Clark said.

Since 2019, the school has had five different school board presidents and five superintendents. The school’s current board president Kendra Wilson-Clements has held that position since March. The school’s current superintendent, Allison Black, has been in her position for four days. Both spoke on the school’s behalf at Thursday’s meeting, saying that the school’s problems are not their fault but that they have a plan for a major “turnaround.”

Touting her success as a business woman, Wilson-Clements laid out a plan that included grants and donations from community organizations and at least four tribes to pay down the school’s debt and improve operation. She also pledged money from her firm — We the People Consulting — to bridge the gap between revenue and costs for the current school year.

“We are no longer on that path that we were on,” Wilson-Clements said. “I’m hopeful and I’m confident that this school will turn around if given the opportunity.”

After Wilson-Clement’s comments, board members asked questions and disagreed over how to give SCS the opportunity for such a turnaround.

Board member Trent Smith questioned why the school for Indigenous students did not already have tribal support.

“I mean, the tribes support everything, except for the governor,” Smith said, drawing laughter from the room.

Wilson-Clements said previous school leadership lacked the relationships with Oklahoma’s tribes that she has.

If the board had voted to issue notice of a termination proposal, it would have started a 90-day period in which Sovereign Community School could file an appeal and trigger a hearing. At that hearing, the board would make its final decision on termination of the school’s charter. (The State Board of Education agreed to sponsor Sovereign Community School in 2019 after the Oklahoma City Public Schools district rejected an application owing to concerns about the school’s sustainability.)

Board member Carlisha Williams Bradley and Hofmeister both agreed that the severity of the school’s finances meant the board needed to move as quickly as possible to take action.

“This stuff is serious, y’all,” Williams Bradley said. “This will impact students way deeper (…) I think that what we just heard is that serious to say that the 90 days is starting.”

After her comments, Williams Bradley motioned to issue the termination notice and begin the 90-day period. The motion failed after all other board members besides Hofmeister voted against it.

The discussion’s intensity increased further, and board member Estela Hernandez demanded to know why the Sovereign Community School issue had not been brought to the board more quickly. Clark, OSDE’s attorney, rose from his seat and walked to the room’s podium to speak into its microphone.

“I was not going to say a single word again, but it was raised,” Clark said to Hernandez. “Where were you in August? Where were you in April of 2021 when we recommended termination? Transparency deserves to know. That’s the record. The department recommended termination at that point, and here we are again. Unfortunate.”

According to the minutes from both April 2021 state board meetings, Hernandez was present at both the board’s regular meeting and a special meeting, and she voted for the board to continue sponsorship of Sovereign Community School. Hernandez was not present at the board’s Aug. 25 meeting, where members denied Sovereign Community School’s application to file a late claim to receive federal funding.

On Thursday, board members ultimately voted to table the discussion until January to give Sovereign Community School “one last chance” to make necessary changes, with Williams Bradley and Hofmeister voting against that motion.

Western Heights intervention lifted

State Board of Education member Brian Bobek donned a Santa hat and Christmas sweater for a meeting on Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022. (Bennett Brinkman)

One year and five months after voting to takeover governance of Western Heights Public Schools owing to financial and academic issues, state board members voted unanimously Thursday to return that authority back to the district’s own board.

The decision comes after the resignation of three controversial board members — president Robert Everman, Robert Sharp and Linda Farley — who fought the state board’s intervention for months in court, eventually losing their case before the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

“One or more board members here have referred to one or more of those board members as ‘cancer’ in the past,” Clark said at Thursday’s meeting. “And so that has been removed. Also removed has been Mannix Barnes.”

Despite the state board’s intervention and installment of their own interim superintendent, former Superintendent Mannix Barnes had remained on paid leave while the Western Heights board declined to fire him. After Everman, Sharp and Farley’s resignations, the district’s board agreed to a settlement with Barnes, which included his resignation and surrender of his educator certificate.

Current interim Superintendent Brayden Savage expressed gratitude for the change in her district’s leadership and acknowledged that Western Heights still has a ways to go to move past its “inadequate leadership.”

State board member Brian Bobek asked Savage if she was comfortable with the action. Savage explained that she had some anxiety about the challenges ahead but said she is “comfortable” with board members’ vote to remove the intervention.

“I am good if we do not (have the intervention),” Savage said. “I just wanted to clarify where I am on that — makes me nervous.”

Hofmeister signs off

After the meeting, Hofmeister declined to say what she plans on doing next after her term as state superintendent expires. Hofmeister lost her gubernatorial bid in November, and controversial Republican Ryan Walters is set to be sworn in as her successor Jan. 9.

“I am going to be involved,” Hofmeister said. “But you’ll just have to stay tuned. We’re not ready to be public about it yet.”