In a five-hour special meeting on Friday, the Oklahoma State Board of Education voted to keep an indigenous-led charter school on probation and to place an Oklahoma City district on probation.
The board could have terminated Sovereign Community School’s contract, but they praised operations director Stacie Thrasher and founding board member Kyla Molina for working to improve its governance and solve financial problems.
Enrollment has consistently fallen short of projections, leaving the school short on funds, and Sovereign Community School pursued a merger with fellow charter Santa Fe South Schools, accepting a $300,000 loan. Molina told the state board they want to get the question of financial solvency off of the state’s plate.
"We have had discussions time and time again in our board meetings that, that is still a reality, that it is hard to start a charter. We have to get donations, we have to fill out grants and we have to get support moving forward," Molina said.
State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister ultimately voted to continue Sovereign Community School’s probation but said she still has concerns.
"This is actually the state board’s sponsored charter school, and we have examples of very well-run, sponsored by the state board charter schools that have proven and shown that they can do what they say they will do," Hofmeister said.
Hofmeister said the situation reminds her of Langston Hughes Academy for Arts and Technology, which the board stripped accreditation from in 2019.
The board also considered the case of Western Heights Public Schools, which last had students in classrooms in March 2020. The State Department of Education also found the district suddenly stopped providing meals to students during that time. More than 90% are considered economically disadvantaged.
Other problems at the small district include an audit showing bond proceeds being used to pay off debt, a board member drinking beer during a public meeting, and steep declines in enrollment and staffing. Education department general counsel Brad Clark read statements from parents and teachers indicating the behavior of Superintendent Mannix Barnes is a major problem.
"Mr. Barnes has complete disdain for all of us and has made derogatory remarks to individuals about what he thinks about our families, such as they are dumb and poor," Clark read from one statement. "We are in a high-poverty area. Parents do not always have the funds to purchase the insurance for the equipment they are required to have to attend school.
"We’ve had more than one family that lost or broke their device. They are charged $230. If they don’t have that money, they don’t get a new device and they get no education services."
Western Heights didn’t have a representative attend Friday’s state board meeting, despite being asked to. Board member Estela Hernandez said the school is being failed from the top down, and that’s not the only problem.
"It’s been years that they’ve also been shorted funds and state aid that was due to them that still hasn’t been resolved as well. So, it’s just disappointing to see how this school district has not been served and has not been given the opportunity to thrive," Hernandez said.
Clark told the board there was an ongoing impasse on contract negotiations with teachers, and at one point benefit contributions weren’t being made.