Ray Carter | June 30, 2021

Western Heights’ challenges show need for education reform

Ray Carter

Officials say the travails of families in the Western Heights school district, whose superintendent was recently stripped of his certificate by state officials, highlight the need to enact additional education reforms that empower parents.

“There just has to be accountability,” said state Sen. Brent Howard, R-Altus.

Howard is author of Senate Bill 210, which would allow citizens to force recall elections for school board members. Parents in Western Heights have been vocal in their support of that reform, along with moving school-board elections to November, saying the current system produced an unresponsive school board that did nothing to prevent now-former Superintendent Mannix Barnes from running the district into the ground.

“The only way we are going to get our school back is by replacing the board,” said Brianna Dodd, a parent in the Western Heights district who is also an alumna of the district. “We can only do that one year at a time.”

The Western Heights district has five members on its school board, each serving five-year terms that are staggered so only one election is held per year.

“It’s going to take us until April 2023 to get a majority on that board,” said Amy Boone, another Western Heights parent.

It’s not certain the district will even exist by then.

The State Board of Education has placed the district on probation and warned that if the Western Heights board does not address the school’s problems, a state takeover or even closure and annexation of the district could occur.

Among other things, audits have indicated potential misuse of bond funds has occurred at the district, questions have been raised about the school’s use of federal COVID-bailout funds, teachers have complained of an abusive work environment that’s been associated with a 37-percent loss of staff, and the district remained closed for in-person instruction longer than any district in Oklahoma, resulting in severe learning loss.

“This whole last school year, the kids only got 10 days of in-person learning,” Boone said.

According to information recently presented to the State Board of Education by Brad Clark, general counsel for the Oklahoma State Department of Education, students have been severely impacted. Based on preliminary results of state testing in the spring, the average scores in Western Heights were among the lowest of all of Oklahoma’s 500-plus school districts. Nearly 90 percent of students were performing below grade level.

“Academics and student outcomes were not good, to be polite,” Clark told the State Board of Education. “To be candid, they’re worse now.”

Those outcomes have occurred against a backdrop in which Barnes was one of the state’s highest-paid superintendents, receiving $220,000 a year despite having no prior experience as a school administrator. Dodd noted Barnes had no school experience of any kind—“not even a janitor, not a dishwasher, not a cook, not a teacher, not a coach—literally nothing.”

Parents note that Barnes’ salary was much greater than the prior superintendent’s salary, and exceeded the amount paid to superintendents at larger districts who have decades of experience. They believe that pay is partly the result of a longstanding relationship between Barnes and Western Heights school board member Robert Everman.

“These two have worked together just about every job they’ve had since the early 2000s,” Boone said.

The Western Heights school board responded to the State Board of Education’s decision to place the district on probation by suing the state board and reaffirming their support for Barnes. Western Heights officials did not appear before the state board when it met in June to consider stripping Barnes’ superintendent’s certificate, but district parents did—a fact noted by state board members.

“I think we’ve seen very clearly today that the school board and the leadership of the district don’t seem interested in responding to the concerns that we’ve had for months at this board, and therefore it rises to the level that we have to intervene,” said State Board of Education member Jennifer Monies.

Parents say the Western Heights situation is in part the product of a system in which school-board elections are held on obscure, low-turnout dates that draw few voters, lengthy terms of office for school-board members who don’t fear recall, and many low-income families lacking the financial means to easily take their children elsewhere.

Boone noted that a recent school-board election, which resulted in the ouster of one Western Heights incumbent, drew around 500 voters. But the previous school-board election was uncontested, and the prior election drew just 67 votes across the entire district.

“I didn’t vote in that election either,” Boone said, referencing the 67-vote election. “Number one, I didn’t know when it was.”

“Everybody gets ready for the big November race. Everybody gets ready for the state election races,” Dodd said. “Nobody gets ready for school-board races.”

Parents say they support moving school-board elections to November, as proposed by Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat in Senate Bill 962. That bill passed the Senate and remains available for a House vote next year.

“The current school board election calendar protects the status quo in education,” said Treat, R-Oklahoma City. “It’s a huge barrier to most voters and makes it much harder for voters to participate in local school board races. Aligning school board elections with the general election calendar makes sense. It will increase voter participation in local school board races, which, ultimately, will lead to more transparency and accountability, making it easier for voters to participate in local school board elections, which set the direction and vision for local school districts.”

Despite ousting one incumbent this year, parents say the other Western Heights board members continue to ignore parents.

“Nobody answers phones. Nobody answers emails. Nobody answers texts. Nobody answers messages on Facebook,” Dodd said. “Literally, we’ve tried to reach out to them in multiple, different ways.”

“Trying to find a way to recall board members, whether it’s by petition or whatever, is a good idea, because essentially nobody wants these remaining board members in our district,” Boone said. “But we’re stuck with them.”

Without recall elections, Howard noted school-board elections can be decided by only a handful of people even though the consequences may be felt by an entire community for years.

“School-board elections have some of the lowest turnout in the state with common elections being between 3-percent to 8-percent voter turnout,” Howard said. “We need more parents involved and we need direct accountability.”

Voting With Their Feet

Lacking recall, many Western Heights families have begun voting with their feet. Western Heights enrollment declined nearly 24 percent in one year, falling from around 3,400 students in 2020 to 2,596 in 2021.

“We have people in this district that have lived here for 20 years that are selling their homes and moving,” Boone said.

But she questions if many remaining families can easily do the same. State data shows 90 percent of Western Heights’ student families are considered “economically disadvantaged.”

While lawmakers voted this year to make open transfer between public-school districts easier, that may not benefit Western Heights families due to a capacity exemption, which can include districts that reach 85 percent of their bonding capacity. The districts around Western Heights include Oklahoma City, Bethany, Moore, Mustang, Yukon and Putnam City. Of those districts, only Putnam City has not reached the 85-percent threshold in the last five years.

Parents say the lack of school options for families has fueled indifference from entrenched members of the Western Heights school board.

“They know that the majority of these families are trapped in this district,” Boone said. “They can’t leave, even if they wanted to. They don’t have the resources to do it, so they just have to take what we give them, and if it’s a crap education that’s what it is. They don’t have a choice.”

Expansion of private-school choice programs that allow citizens to use taxpayer dollars for tuition would not only provide those families with an escape valve but could also incentivize improvement in Western Heights, according to experts.

Patrick J. Wolf, distinguished professor of education policy at the University of Arkansas, said research consistently shows public schools improve their service and performance once they face potential loss of students to private schools through choice programs, saying it is “pretty much settled science.”

“The evidence is overwhelming,” Wolf said. “When public schools newly face competition from school choice, they deliver better outcomes for the students who remain in their schools.”

But until lawmakers enact reforms that further increase parental power in education, Western Heights parents say they are left with only a slim hope for the future that involves a state takeover of the school that replaces Western Heights board members without permanently shuttering the district.

“We’re just grasping for straws,” Dodd said, “until the State Department of Education either shuts us down or gives us another chance.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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