tulsa public schools board
The Tulsa Public Schools Board of Education convened for a special meeting on Thursday, July 14, 2022. (Andrea Hancock)

TULSA — After three board members walked out of a meeting Monday night, the Tulsa Public Schools Board of Education reconvened for a special meeting Thursday and passed a series of payroll and school program items that had failed three days prior.

E’Lena Ashley and Jennettie Marshall, two of the three board members who walked out Monday, had originally voted against every item on the board’s consent agenda, which groups items that are expected to be noncontroversial. Board member Jerry Griffin, the third member to walk out, had voted against 12 of 28 measures on the consent agenda.

One of the seven board members, Judith Barba Perez, was absent on Monday, so votes on the 12 items Griffin voted against resulted in a 3-3 tie, meaning they did not pass that evening.

TPS Superintendent Deborah Gist criticized the board’s failure to pass the 12 items. Those items included a bond to fund technology improvements, the renewal of partnerships with external learning programs, the approval of contracts for new teachers and approval of pay for summer workers.

“What happened here, together collectively as a group of adults — we are failing our students,” Gist told the board on Monday night. Marshall interrupted Gist’s criticisms and accused the superintendent of “strong-arming” the board, and from there the meeting devolved into a yelling match among the board members. It was at that point that Marshall, Ashley and Griffin walked out.

Monday’s tumultuous meeting was the latest chapter in an ongoing conflict between Gist and board members. A week ago, Ashley and Marshall sent a letter to Gov. Kevin Stitt requesting an audit of TPS, saying that Gist left board members “in the dark” regarding ongoing investigations into misuse of public funds by the district’s talent management department. On Tuesday, Griffin and Marshall called for Gist’s resignation. Gist has since said she has no plans to resign.

Backlash against the board’s conduct Monday night was swift. On social media, several parents and educators denounced the board members’ behavior and the lack of productivity at the meeting, and some criticized Gist.

Board President Stacey Woolley said at Thursday’s meeting she welcomed feedback from community members.

“This is exactly what we want,” Woolley said. “We want parents’ involvement. We want to hear from teachers. So, thank you.”

Seventeen former TPS board members signed a letter posted to Facebook on Wednesday night, which said that “the moral duty of basic decency among elected officials who serve students — our next generation Tulsans — were completely renounced Monday night.”

“Our city fails without public education, [and] the future of our community is not sustainable without a strong local school board who uses student success as their compass at all times,” the letter added.

Board approves bond sale Thursday

Thursday’s 1 p.m. meeting at the Education Service Center drew a large audience. Many of those in attendance wore red, evoking the #REDforED movement, which began in Oklahoma in 2018.

In a drastic turnaround from the deadlock Monday, every measure on Thursday’s action agenda passed.

The special meeting’s agenda featured the items that had resulted in ties on Monday. The first item on the docket was the proposed sale of $6.2 million in bonds to the Bank of Oklahoma, which was the lowest bidder in a competitive process overseen by Municipal Financial Services, Inc., an Edmond-based financial advising service for governmental entities.

Marshall, Ashley and Griffin voted against the measure Monday after insinuations that Gist, whose husband works for BOK, had a conflict of interest.

On Thursday afternoon, Marshall continued to question Gist, who remained adamant that her husband’s position at the bank did not play a role in the bidding process. Her claims were supported by TPS legal counsel and Rick Smith, the district’s representative from Municipal Financial Services.

“Oklahomans know that BOK is a massive enterprise. They have 5,000 employees and, yes, my husband is one of those employees,” Gist said. “He has absolutely no role or influence in the office that manages school bonding.”

The bond sale was approved by a 5-2 vote, with Ashley and Marshall voting no.

The rest of the agenda items were passed either unanimously or with a single “no” vote from Ashley.

Flashbacks to Monday’s chaos

One of the agenda items was to approve the district’s participation in Confucius Classrooms, a program that provides Chinese language classes. Tulsa’s Booker T. Washington High School currently participates in the program.

Ashley asked why the program was being discussed when many TPS students are below proficiency in reading and math. When Woolley told Ashley that her comments must be relevant to the specific item at hand, several board members began to speak over one another in a scene reminiscent of the incident Monday.

As Woolley asked Ashley not to interrupt her, a woman in the audience yelled, “You need to tell that to Dr. Gist as well.” Woolley warned the audience member that she would be removed if she called out again, to which the woman replied, “Do your job, Mrs. President.” The audience member was then removed by security.

After the meeting resumed, the board turned its attention back to Confucius Classrooms.

“I’d like for us all to consider that the grant being accepted by this nonprofit organization is from Communist China,” Ashley said, which garnered gasps from the audience. “We want to be careful of how and who we receive funds from, and how our children can be indoctrinated by them.”

Confucius Classrooms are affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education.

‘No idea how the process works’

The rest of the items on Thursday’s action agenda passed largely without incident. One of the approved items was to renew a contract with Reading Partners, a nonprofit that places volunteer reading coaches in elementary schools. The board said students in the program have outperformed their peers without reading coaches on assessments since the program was initiated in 2013.

Though Thursday’s meeting was more productive than the one Monday night, some parents are still concerned about the direction the district is moving.

Shelley Cadamy, who had three children graduate from TPS and is now the guardian of her granddaughter who is entering pre-K at TPS, said she left Thursday’s special meeting unsatisfied.

“Here’s what I saw today: I saw a board who clearly doesn’t understand how a consent agenda works, a board who asked absurd questions about the superintendent’s husband’s job, which leads me to believe we have board members who have no idea how the process works,” Cadamy said.

Cadamy added that she thinks low voter turnout in school board elections is a barrier to improving TPS.

“When I look at the number of people who voted in certain districts, I’m appalled,” she said. “I really hope that as a community we can be more proactive and educate ourselves.”

‘On behalf of the community’

After the action agenda, the board proceeded with the rest of the docket it had scheduled for Thursday before Monday’s chaos. One item included meeting with A.J. Crabill and Cindy Elsbernd, who represent the Council of the Great City Schools, an organization that provides advising for governing boards, among other services. The pair spoke about “student-outcomes-focused governance.”

“Most school boards spend very little time figuring out, ‘Are we doing the right work?’ and are a lot of the time focused on, ‘Are we doing work the right way?’ You actually have to have both,” Crabill said at the beginning of the meeting. “If none of our children actually learn, then you haven’t actually served the purpose of a school system.”

Crabill led the board members and the superintendent through exercises in which they discussed their beliefs about the purpose of public school systems and, more specifically, the purpose of school boards. After the board members compared their values, Crabill offered his own stance.

“The job of the board is to represent the vision and values of the community,” he said. “It’s an accountability mechanism, it’s an oversight mechanism, but on behalf of ‘whom’ is really important. It’s on behalf of the community.”

(Correction: This article was updated at 4:20 p.m. Friday, July 15, to correct a word in a quote from Crabill. NonDoc regrets the error.)