KINGFISHER — On Monday night in a packed room on the high school campus, those who supported plaintiff alumnus Mason Mecklenburg and those who supported criminally charged football coach Jeff Myers seemed to agree on one thing: It sure felt like the home team lost.
“Our school district had dropped the ball on some things, and there was no disputing that,” Superintendent David Glover told the crowd before a meeting of the Kingfisher Public Schools Board.
More than two years after Mecklenburg filed the federal lawsuit over what he called hazing that rose to the level of “torture” during his four years in the high school football program, KPS board members voted Monday to approve a settlement agreement and avoid facing a trial Glover said they would likely lose.
Lawyers reached the settlement agreement, which puts the district on the hook for a $5 million total payout, mere weeks before the trial was supposed to start. Board members officially approved the settlement — the third offered to the district — one day before the trial’s scheduled start date.
“The school district was what was really going to be on trial starting tomorrow,” Glover said told Monday’s irritated the crowd. “And the way I looked at it, again, is (it was) our kids that were going to be on trial. We knew that we were probably going to lose this judgment.”
To handle the more than 200 people who attended Monday night’s meeting, board members moved its location to the high school cafeteria. Community members filled the seats and stood along the walls to watch the night’s discussion, with some grumbling and even occasionally shouting questions and criticism toward the board.
Six people stood and spoke during the public participation portion of the meeting, venting their frustrations about the legal drama that has unfolded in Kingfisher for more than two years. One even referenced Cameron Spradling, Mason Mecklenburg’s lead attorney who has regularly bashed the district and Myers on social media.
“You as a board voted not to settle the original settlement per legal team’s advice, but now those same lawyers have decided they can’t win,” Kingfisher resident BJ Waeger told the board. “They threw in the towel before the court even started. You let a Twitter bully lawyer beat you. (…) You simply let entitlement win.”
When Tom Edgar got to the microphone to make his comments to the board, he instead turned around to face the crowd with his back to board members. Calling himself a former pharmacist and resident for nearly 60 years, Edgar said his words were his “uninformed opinion.”
“I’ve been around schools for a long time, and hazing went on a lot. And not that it’s right — it can get out of hand — but a $5 million settlement for wet towel popping in the shower — that’s a lot of money,” Edgar said. “This will be a precedent for more lawsuits, probably.”
While Edgar’s comments drew some applause, his description of the allegations made by Mecklenburg — and other former KPS football players who signed affidavits and conducted interviews with law enforcement — was far from comprehensive. The series of events described by Mecklenburg and former teammates included allegations of sexual assault, violence involving a paintball gun and a Taser, and regular coach-sanctioned fighting in the school’s locker room.
“It really did hurt me,” Mason Mecklenburg told NonDoc in 2021. “But also it just should not happen to anyone else because it’s been a history. It’s been a culture. And it just needs to stop.”
On Monday, Jeff Rutledge followed Edgar during the public comment period. Rutledge repeated the phrase “we are not liable for your mistakes” as he talked about the district’s finances and the board’s March 2022 decision to reject Spradling’s $1.5 million settlement offer.
After Rutledge, Morgan Winters used her time to call on board member Terry Payne to resign. Winters said Payne has a business connection with Justin Mecklenburg, Mason’s father, that could cause a conflict of interest with how the board has handled Meckleburg’s lawsuit. Payne is the pastor of LifeWay Church, for which Justin Mecklenburg is the registered agent.
“As a very concerned citizen in this district, I’m respectfully asking for the resignation of Terry Payne from the school board,” Winters said. “I fear his position on this board was achieved with ulterior motives and has damaged our district financially.”
Steve Forman finished the public participation section of the meeting with comments that seemed to encapsulate much of the crowd’s feelings.
“We wouldn’t be in this situation if someone had done their job,” Forman said. “Our community didn’t ask for this, and I feel really bad for our community to have to deal with this kind of embarrassing situation.”
Each person who spoke during the public participation section of the meeting received loud applause during and after their speeches.
Some of the community members who addressed the board also called for the 5,000-person community to move forward from the two-year-old lawsuit that saw dozens of depositions of community members, numerous hearings in federal court and related criminal charges for two of the coaches, a school board member and Justin Mecklenburg.
The lawsuit brought statewide attention to the town and its popular football program, which finished this season with a 4-7 record after Myers was placed on administrative leave in October.
Myers — a hall of fame coach who led Kingfisher to a state championship in 2013 — coached football in the district for 20 years. Another stipulation of the settlement agreement bars him from coaching any sport in Kingfisher in the future.
Joe White, Myers’ attorney, did not respond to a request for comment prior to the publication of this article.
‘A long ride’
While the unhappy crowd seemed generally supportive of Myers, most seemed particularly angry about the district’s lack of insurance coverage for the settlement payout.
Over the next three years, KPS agreed to pay $3.75 million to plaintiff Mason Mecklenburg. Because the district’s chosen insurance cooperative from the time of the alleged incidents is now insolvent, the settlement agreement stipulates that the money will be paid from the district’s sinking fund, meaning property owners in the district will likely see their taxes go up to finance the new obligation.
The community was particularly peeved that former KPS Superintendent Jason Sternberger — whose sons played in the football program — served on the board of the now-insolvent Oklahoma Schools Risk Management Trust. Sternberger was on OSMRT’s board while leading the district as the trust’s finances were declining and as the Mecklenburgs were threatening litigation. Sternberger is now the superintendent of Hennessey Public Schools about 18 miles north of Kingfisher.
“It had been reported many times that it was going insolvent. It was very well known,” said Debra Parks after the meeting. “My problem was somebody from Kingfisher was on the board at that time, so why wasn’t that communicated back to Kingfisher? That is a problem. Somebody’s responsible.”
Board member Brad Wittrock attempted to mollify the crowd during the meeting with a potential plan to avoid raising property taxes to pay the settlement amount.
“Just because any vote may happen today doesn’t mean it’s over, because you have a board that I have talked to that is committed to trying to handle these payments on our own before those bills are sent to you guys,” Wittrock said. “I’m not making a promise, I’m just telling you that that is the goal of what we’re trying to do.”
Wittrock’s plan, which was not an official proposal, involves having the district make the payments each year “before the taxes are sent to the community.” Wittrock said that if the district has the funds to do that, the burden for the payments would not fall squarely on property owners.
Reached by phone Tuesday, both the Kingfisher County treasurer and assessor said the district attorney’s office had advised them not to speak publicly about Wittrock’s proposal while they investigate the legality of such a plan. Kingfisher County Assessor Carrie Turner said her office has the same questions that community members do about how Wittrock’s idea might or might not work.
After all the board members voted to approve the settlement, they were split over a request to approve employee stipends, eventually voting 3-2 to table the discussion to a later date in an effort to save money as they prepare for settlement payments.
“There’s some concern for how the school handled some situations. There’s a household in our community that feels that pulling $5 million from the other kids in the school is a solution,” Wittrock said after the vote. “I do want to prepare the teachers for a long ride, because we do need to cover this for our district and the citizens of our district.”
Lawyers for Mason Mecklenburg said the family had no comment on Monday night’s meeting.