FARRIS — 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.”
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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”