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 ccoppernoll@opubco.com Published: March 4, 2013

“Janet Barresi and this has just created a tremendous amount of stress on me,” Watson said. “I'm just having to deal with all of this with my doctor.”

Then, Farris tried to annex to Antlers, but Antlers denied the request. They asked Stringtown, which also rejected them.

Parents said they were kept in the dark about the annexation requests.

Then, this spring, a petition circulated around town to dissolve Farris altogether and send the students to Lane. More than 200 signatures were gathered in four days.

Contract extensions

On Feb. 12, voters decided to do away with Farris Public School.

The vote was 143-14 in favor of annexation.

While voters were casting their ballots, the Farris School Board was meeting and extending contracts for district employees. Watson and his employees were given contract extensions through summer 2014.

Some Farris residents describe it as a last-minute money grab — opening a golden parachute while leaping from a crashing plane.

Watson disagrees.

He said the decision was made to stabilize the school district. The goal was to ensure more teachers wouldn't resign if the annexation failed.

Either way, Watson said he and his employees are due 16 months of pay.

Somebody should pay, he said, whether it's Lane Public School or a state fund for annexed or consolidated schools.

Before the school district closed, an attorney for Farris Public School filed a lawsuit, asking a judge to decide who should pay for those contracts.

The Lane superintendent said pay for the rest of this year is understandable, but the 2013-14 school year contracts are unreasonable.

Audit request

The lawsuit isn't the only question left unanswered for Farris.

On Feb. 21, Barresi wrote a letter to state Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones, asking him to audit Farris Public Schools for fiscal years 2011, 2012 and 2013.

“Please take whatever action is needed to secure these records for the special audit,” she wrote.

Four days later, an employee of the state auditor and inspector's office delivered a subpoena to Watson, ordering him to “secure all financial records of every kind.”

The goal is to protect the students and patrons of Farris, said Kim Richey, general counsel for the state Education Department.

“The honest truth is we don't have a lot of enforcement authority on the front end of situations like this to ensure that every expenditure that Farris makes is legally sound,” Richey said.

“Most of our authority comes after the fact — after a bad act or after a wrongful expenditure has already been completed. ... There really is very little that we can do to protect them.”

Farris closes early

Farris Public School was closed Wednesday and Thursday because, Watson said, district employees had too much paperwork and inventory to do before their jobs disappeared.

Everyone was there except for Watson, who has been on medical leave.

Watson said his staff had only a week and a half to complete paperwork that districts normally have months to complete. No one from the state Education Department has helped him, he said.

“This has been the most monstrous deal in seven working days,” he said. “ ... This has been the most chaotic, stressful thing I have ever witnessed in my life.”

Watson said it all is retaliation to his stance against Barresi and her agency.

He said he spoke out against water sales that affected his district and has since been harassed by state Education Department workers.

He said the last straw was to dissolve the school district in the middle of the school year instead of waiting until summer.

“Why March 1 instead of the end of the school year, I'll never know,” he said.

Richey, the Education Department attorney, said Farris residents did not want to wait any longer to close the school.

With that, everything now belongs to Lane — property, cash and debts.

Students move on

On Friday, the parking lot outside of Farris Public School sat empty.

A gate out front was locked. An idle school bus sat nearby.

Seven miles away, Lane Public School was bustling.

“I hate to break up the party,” a teacher said to three students chatting in the hall, “but aren't y'all supposed to be going to lunch?”

Maintenance workers had started moving copiers, tables, desks and other equipment from Farris. File boxes of paperwork sat stacked in the administration offices.

Volunteers plan to box up the Farris library Monday.

Also Monday, the school district will receive more than $350,000 from the state Education Department to help with the annexation proceedings.

Seventh-grader Sarah Martin said she and her Lane classmates were excited to meet the new Farris students. Everyone wanted to set the right tone, she said.

“This school is a good example,” she said.

Lane now has about 280 students within 200 square miles, said Smith, the superintendent.

The area has a high poverty rate, Smith said. About 80 to 90 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

Most of the parents here work for the prison system, the state highway department or health care companies.

When students finish school at Lane, they mostly go on to Atoka or Stringtown for high school.

Even though Farris Public School is gone, the community can still be united, Smith said.

“It brings us together,” Smith said. “We continue our heritage.”

Mixed emotions

Carol Ertman taught at Farris Public School for six years and was one of three workers hired at Lane. Friday felt like the first day of school all over again. Ertman said it was a day of mixed emotions.

“Sad because Farris was a nice place for a long time and excited because Lane is a beautiful place,” she said.

Her three kindergarten students at Farris started school with her on Friday, too. She said they're excited she came with them, and even older students told her they were happy to see her there.

Her new classroom was still in the works Friday. The teachers at Lane were welcoming to her, she said. She declined to say what it was like to work at Farris.

Ann Richardson's fourth-grade students pecked out tall tales on keyboards at their desks. The pink-cheeked children sniffled after coming in from recess.

Three of Richardson's students were new Friday, and she expects another student Monday. She paired each Farris student with a Lane student to help introduce them to the school.

“The transition went really well,” Richardson said. “They're so excited and our kids are exited to have them.”

Teachers are testing students to find out where they are academically. If any children are behind, the plan is to provide individual instruction, remediation and other special services.

Richardson, who has been teaching for nearly 40 years, said she and other Lane employees spent many hours planning for the annexation.

She said the kindness of Farris families has been wonderful.

“We've met some really sweet families today,” she said Friday. “Really sweet families.”

Fifth-grader Druid Gibson started at Lane on Friday, and she said she already liked her new school. She said she was upset when she heard Farris was closing.

“The first time I heard it, I couldn't stop crying,” Gibson said. “But then I stopped crying about it. Sometimes change is good.”