News 9 Investigates: New, Secret Contract Puts Western Heights School District On Hook For Nearly $1 Million For Ousted Superintendent

Wednesday, December 15th 2021, 10:31 pm


There's been a lot of headlines in recent years about the Western Heights School District.  

The State Board of Education forcefully took control of the district in July, a move that last month a district judge ruled, once again, was legal. 

After months of legal back and forth, district court Judge Aletia Timmons issued an order on November 19, confirming, once again, the Oklahoma State Department of Education has the authority to take over and administrate a local school district during accreditation probation and remove administrators who they find harmful to the school.  

The state takeover of the school district comes after years of relentless pushing and digging by parents who said this could happen to any school if the community doesn’t pay attention.  

Western Heights is a small school district on the south side of the Oklahoma City metro. The majority of students are economically disadvantaged. About 30% of students are English language learners.  

"For all of this, all this hard work, to get to that point, where finally, somebody said, 'we hear you, and we're going to try to help you.' It was just the most amazing feeling,” said Amy Boone, a Western Heights parent.  

Boone said about two years ago she realized something wasn't right at her child's school.  

In July 2019, Superintendent Mannix Barnes was hired and paid one of the highest superintendent salaries in Oklahoma.  

A $220,000 base salary with 80 days of paid leave per year, plus other perks in the three-year agreement.  

That's at least twice the salary of the previous superintendent, Joe Kitchens.  

Barnes had no previous experience in education and became alternatively certified in the months before the superintendent's position opened up. 

Boone said this was a red flag. 

She and other parents did some research and uncovered a long and mutually beneficial relationship between Barnes and district's school board president Robert Everman. 

The two worked together and for each other, served together on several boards and organizations, and were linked politically.  

Barnes is the director of the political action committee Working Oklahomans Alliance, which donated $2,500 to Everman’s 2006 campaign for Oklahoma House District 90.  

Barnes also contributed $824 personally to Everman's campaign.  

Barnes and Everman have served on several boards and organizations together over years.  

In 2012, Barnes served as the interim director of Community Health Charities of Oklahoma, while Everman sat on the board.  

That same year, the two went to work at the Oklahoma Lupus Foundation.  

In 2013, Barnes joined the Western Heights Board of Education, where Everman had served since the late 1990s. 

In 2015, Barnes and Everman both worked in leadership roles at Lucky Star Casinos and Travel Center.  

They are also linked in 2017 at Onefire Holdings, LLC, an investment firm. Barnes served CEO until 2019 when he became superintendent of Western Heights, and Everman served as CFO.  

State Superintendent of Joy Hofmeister called for Everman’s resignation in early November.  

According to attorneys with Oklahoma State Department of Education, after Barnes' appointment, teachers quit in droves, the district had one of the highest rates of absenteeism in the state, there was financial mismanagement of bond money, and Western Heights was the only district statewide that had no in-person option for the 2020-2021 school year. 

The district lost hundreds of students.  

"The most important thing that seems to be forgotten about is these kids,” Boone said.  

During February's bitter cold and record snow, parents, staff, and community members hit the streets, gathering 1,000 signatures for a citizen's petition asking the state auditor to investigate and report their findings to the state Board of Education.  

In April, the state education board voted unanimously to put the Western Heights School District on probation.  

This was a move community members hoped would bring a swift end to problems at the school.  

Instead, attorneys representing Western Heights sued the state Board of Education a week later. 

In June, the Western Heights Board of Education voted to continue Barnes' employment in their expected annual review, even though Barnes' contract still had another year left. 

Parents later discovered the new three-year deal that was never on the board's agenda.  

A new three-year contract was signed on June 22 by Everman, Barnes, the board clerk Latoya Johnson, and the board attorney Jerry Colclazier. 

The new contract had slight changes, including one critical word.  

Per the terms of the previous contract, if Barnes were to be fired without cause, he would receive severance pay of one year's base salary or for the rest of the contract, whichever is LESSER. 

In the new contract, the agreement reads whichever is MORE. 

This means if Barnes was terminated in summer 2021, he would be paid more than $700,000.  

The state board suspended Barnes' education credential two days later on an emergency basis.  

A contentious and expensive legal battle ensued over the course of the summer and threatened the opening of school this fall. 

A sprint to repair facilities, inspect buses, hire drivers and teachers, and more took place while Western Heights administrators tried to stop state actions in court, and on campus.  

Community members found bags of shredded financial documents.  

The Western Heights board appointed their own interim superintendent, who filed an affidavit just weeks before she said she wasn’t qualified for the position after Barnes’ suspension.  

In purchase orders obtained by News 9 records requests and in information from Western Heights administrators, legal costs charged to the district now total over $350,000 since April.  

But parents prevailed in August. A district judge affirming the state's authority and law enforcement escorted state officials onto campus. 

"When people just run unchecked, and there's no accountability, and there are no repercussions, people just get comfortable and do what they want,” said Boone.  

School board members at Western Heights serve five-year terms. In Oklahoma, there's no way to recall a school board member.  

According to News 9's analysis of voting records, the district's school board seats have decades of uncontested elections with low voter turnout.  

In April 2019, just 67 people voted in the school board election.  

“I mean, schools boards and administrations need to take note,” said Boone.  

Since then, the community has been working to boost voter turnout and change who sits on the board.  

In April 2021, more than 500 people voted in an election where community-backed board member Briana Flatley won.  

The next school board election has already been decided.  

Last week, only one candidate filed to run for the open seat. Darren Dunkin is backed by the community.  

After years of work, rallies, protests, research, the community said they are retaking their school, one seat at a time. 

Next year, they plan to replace another board member.  

"But really, what these kids have lost over the past year, they can't get that back. So it's time for them to be brought back to the forefront, and it's time for us to kind of embrace them and say yeah know what you guys, you matter. All of this, all of the stuff that we did, we did it for you,” said Boone.  

News 9 reached out to the attorney representing the Western Heights board and Barnes. They said: 

"The Board and Mr. Barnes firmly believe that they are the current victims of power-hungry political leaders who are using their positions and staff to advance their political aspirations, at this local school district's expense and harm." 

The Oklahoma Supreme Court agreed on Wednesday to hear the district's board and Barnes' appeal of the November 19 ruling.  

No date has been set yet for this hearing. 

The district and board of education are under investigation by OSBI and the state Auditor Cindy Byrd.