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Oklahoma school district closes, but questions, lawsuits remain

Farris Public School is closed. The Oklahoma auditor and inspector is investigating Farris Public School. Farris Public School is suing Lane Public School and the Oklahoma Education Department.
BY CARRIE COPPERNOLL Published: March 4, 2013

A southeast Oklahoma school district disappeared last week.

The doors are closed and locked at Farris Public School, and the students have moved on to Lane Public School a few miles down the road.

But the fight about the school's money goes on.

The state auditor and inspector is investigating Farris Public School. Farris is suing Lane and the state Education Department.

Allegations are made from all sides: Secret meetings. Greed. Deceit. Bullying.

Five years ago, 90 percent of voters rejected annexation.

Last month, 90 percent of voters decided the district should disappear.

The difference, some Farris residents say, is one man: the superintendent.

“This needs to stop,” resident Noel Starnes said. “This needs to be the last community he influences like this. Wes Watson's career needs to end at this school.”

Financial trouble

Farris Public School has been in and out of trouble in recent years, and the community has wrestled with the idea for annexation before the vote last month.

In the past decade, enrollment has wobbled from 100 or so students to fewer than 50. When the school closed, about 40 children remained. As Farris shrank, the finances became more strained. Efficiency was elusive.

In 2008, the Farris community rejected a proposal to dissolve the district and join Lane Public Schools.

The superintendent at the time moved on, and Watson was hired.

Watson has worked as an educator and administrator in Oklahoma for years. He led Big Cabin Public Schools in Craig County when it lost accreditation in 1991 and was forced to close. When he was a principal in Forest Grove in 1999, he was driving a school bus that collided with a logging truck. A student died.

Watson said the Farris district was on the border of bankruptcy when he took over, but he turned things around.

But Watson's pay has been a point of contention.

His starting salary was $70,000. When the school closed, it was $100,000. It put the district over the legal limit for administrative expenses, and the state Board of Education fined the district nearly $10,000 in January.

It was the third time the district spent too much on administrative costs.

Academic trouble

Finances aside, the school district has struggled academically.

Last year, Farris was named one of the six worst schools in Oklahoma after a study by the state Education Department.

Watson told the state Board of Education that the assessment was unfair and put the district at risk of consolidation.

“You've labeled us inferior to the rest of the state,” he said in April. “We want to prove to everybody — your children haven't been receiving the worst education in the state.”

In the months that followed, state education workers praised Farris for making progress.

But then more bad news came.

Farris was one of two school districts to receive an F under the new Oklahoma school evaluation system in October. The district did not test enough students, so it received an automatic F. Farris was the only district in the state that didn't test enough children.

‘Kids were scared'

The demise of Farris Public School is because of one man, said Starnes, a Farris resident who has been driving his grandson to Lane Public School for years.

Starnes blames Watson.

“How many times have you known of a community to up and destroy their school?” Starnes said. “The heart of our community died.”

Watson fired or pushed out several longtime staffers, Starnes said. The superintendent made too much money. He frightened children. He bullied employees, he said.

Starnes's wife, Julie, worked at the school as a paraprofessional.

“The kids were scared to death of him,” she said. “You could hear him hollering from his office to the other end of the school.”

The Starneses pulled their grandson out of Farris and started driving him to Lane. Noel Starnes said he felt bad for families who couldn't afford the 14-mile, round-trip drive.

“I felt sorry for the kids there,” he said, “and I felt sorry for the parents who had to leave their kids there.”

Richard and Susan McGee have two daughters who attend Lane Public School — fifth-grader Cheyenne and third-grader Regina.

The McGees live within 100 yards of Farris Public School, but they moved their girls out.

They said Susan was called to the school and asked to sign paperwork that she wasn't allowed to read.

She refused and later found out it was to give permission to the district to create a special education plan for the younger daughter, Regina, who never had trouble academically.

“Two days later, we'd taken our children out of school,” Richard McGee said.

At first, the McGees and others were outcasts. They got cold shoulders and middle fingers, Richard McGee said. But more families followed.

Watson was the reason for the exodus, Richard McGee said.

“He's made a career out of bullying, intimidating, threatening,” Richard McGee said.

Watson was known for slamming a paddle onto desks and walls, they said.

Susan McGee said her older daughter would hide when she saw Watson coming. She heard parents say children struggled with nightmares and bed-wetting.

Susan McGee worked as a substitute teacher for Watson. She said she and other staffers made a pact to stop sending children to the office for discipline problems.

“You could hear the paddling through the halls,” she said. “ ... They were all scared to death.”

Watson said he doesn't see himself as intimidating.

“I have nothing to say,” Watson said.

“I'd like to think that there's others that feel like I do a good job, and I'm not intimidating. But I cannot say as an administrator that everyone would like me, even though I wish they would.”

Annexation requests

About 30 parents were driving children to Lane every day for school, and in August, the families asked Lane Superintendent Roland Smith whether the district could provide transportation.

But districts can't pick up students in other districts without permission, Smith said. Farris said no.

That's when parents started looking at other options.

“There are some down there that say Roland Smith is responsible for this,” Smith said.

“Here is my sin: When those people came to our doorstep with their children ... I could have either turned them away or accept them. I had no reason to turn them away.”

At the same time, Farris was bombarded by state Education Department visits at the beginning of the fall semester, Watson said.

At one point, he said, the school had more state overseers than district employees in the building.

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