Part pep-rally, part lynch mob, the special meeting of the Catoosa School Board Tuesday took only minutes, but the public gathering went on into the evening.

School officials left an angry and questioning public with few answers.

Students wearing cardboard signs chanted support for teachers and staff outside the building. Signs with 602 written on them, the badge number of school police officer Drew Bontrager, showed their loyalty to the young man who they feel protects them.

Bontrager is reportedly one of 22 support staff earmarked for dismissal by the school administration.

On the agenda for the meeting were six certified personnel, including four teachers, who must be dismissed by the Board of Education according to contract guidelines with the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA).

Representatives of the Association of Catoosa Classroom Teachers, the local branch of OEA, were in attendance but had been advised by an attorney not to comment at this time.Under the OEA contract, those approved by the Board for dismissal have a right to a hearing in 20 days at which time an attorney or an OEA representative can argue for retention.

Board President Jeff Conklin advised the public that retention was not likely given the financial condition of the school district.

Named on the agenda were teachers, Deborah Clary, Kimberly Evans, Michelle Means, and Terry Newton. Also named for dismissal were school nurse Melinda Cope and In-School Detention Administrator Chester Knight.

The board voted unanimous approval of the motion to dismiss.

“We’ve got a responsibility to the district,” said Conklin who tried to deflect questions from an angry public. “None of us like being here.”

Conklin said that the Board had to act in the “best interest of the kids.”

He informed the audience that support staff would get a pre-termination hearing if they requested it within 10 days, but that school administration would deal with support staff according to the law, and the Board only approved the dismissal of certified personnel listed on the agenda.

Voices cried out from the crowd.

“Will you take questions?” called a woman.

“No, ma’am,” said Conklin. “We were advised that tonight we’re not at liberty to discuss finances.”

According to Conklin teachers from the upper grade levels were chosen for dismissal. He said that school administrators would move personnel around to have as small an impact as possible on students.

“We need an audit. Could we have a state audit?” from the audience.Someone called out that the school had faced embezzlement issues before.

The audience voiced anger that there was no discussion and that they had a superintendent who didn’t plan on staying.

As early as December the School Board formed a search committee to find a new superintendent when Superintendent Cale announced his intentions to resign.

Conklin advised that the board meeting was not a public forum.

“We pay taxes!” from the audience.

“Three people vote for the whole school district?” asked another.

“When does the public get a right to speak?”

The Board quickly approved the motion on the table, set the hearing date for March 29 at 6 p.m. and left with a police escort.

School Superintendent Larry Cale stayed to field what questions he could, citing various programs and the state teacher pay raise as reasons for the school’s financial problems. The public was told that delay would only mean the eventual firing of more people as the financial situation could only worsen if immediate action were not taken.

Cale would not answer questions regarding Tom Pickens, former Catoosa financial advisor who is now the financial director for Claremore Public Schools. Pickens left mid-year, resigning from Catoosa Public Schools in December.

Pickens confirmed this morning that he served at Catoosa for three and half years as finance director, saying he took the job at Claremore for better retirement benefts and pay.

Pickens said, “When I left (Catoosa) in December, they were in the black.” Based on the information available at the time, Pickens said , he didn’t know a financial crisis was pending.

“No, I didn’t know.” he said. “I knew it was going to be a close year. I was operating on the best financial information I had at the time.

“In the school business, we deal with a lot of unfunded m andates from the state and we look to the state for support. We were counting on supplemental appropriations from the legislature. The Legislaturie promised money and didn’t send it,” Pickens said. “It’s our job to run the school and the state is supposed to give us the money to do that.”

Freshman Allisha Rhine voiced her concern about the effect this will have on classroom size and the quality of education.

“I think it’s ridiculous. There are 35 kids in one classroom with people sitting on the floor because we don’t have enough desks,” said Rhine. “It’s going to be hard to concentrate if we have one teacher taking care of 40 kids.”

Students are also upset about the possible dismissal of support staff.

“Drew, the campus police officer is awesome,” said Breanna Joy, also a Freshman. “Bill the janitor is the only person who keeps this school clean. He cares about students. He talks to us and gives us high-fives.”

There were claims of an administration pay raise that was not state mandated and that teachers had been asked to “take one for the team.”

Cale denied this amid shouts of disbelief from the crowd, many of whom claimed to have been at the meeting where this was voiced.

As the questioning of Cale continued small clusters of parents began to form as people drifted from the building but did not leave the school grounds. Rumors were rampant concerning where the money had gone.

“There’s no heat or air conditioning at Cherokee Elementary cafeteria,” said one. “The kids have to wear coats.”

Though Cale claims to have warned people as early as August that there could be funding problems the public voiced feelings of shock and rage. He cited an article he had written for the Catoosa Times, the weekly community newspaper, last fall.

“The public had no clue that we were this bad off,” said one audience member toward the end of the gathering.