state board of education accreditation
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters shakes hands with Oklahoma State Board of Education members before a meeting Thursday, July 27, 2023. (Bennett Brinkman)

With half of today’s four-hour State Board of Education meeting devoted to 33 speakers during the public comment period, members voted to accept the Oklahoma State Department of Education’s recommendations on a slew of accreditation actions. But the board tabled proposed accreditation votes for Tulsa Public Schools and Infinity Generation Generals, a northwest Oklahoma City private school that held a truncated spring semester amid concerns about its operations.

The state board renews school district and site accreditations each July. Following today’s meeting, nine districts and 18 sites will be accredited with warning for the next year, and three districts and three sites will be placed on probation for the next academic year. (A full list is available at the bottom of this article.)

OSDE also recommended two schools not be accredited. In January, the state board voted to revoke the charter school authorization for Sovereign Community School. On Thursday, the board voted not to accredit the struggling school, which had been created to serve Indigenous children living in the Oklahoma City metro. While OSDE also recommended against accrediting Infinity Generation Generals Preparatory School, a vote on that item was tabled until next month.

Infinity’s president, Gina Darby, appeared before the state board with her attorney on speaker phone to plead with members for a delay in removing her school’s accreditation. At one point, Darby’s attorney called OSDE rules “pathetic.”

“Please do not make a decision today based on what the accreditation director is saying because there is evidence behind the things that he’s not giving you all, and I would like the opportunity to be able to provide that,” said Darby, who cried at times while she spoke to board members. “Just as you tabled Tulsa — I’m not saying that we can’t revisit this, but at least hear our side with our evidence.”

OSDE accreditation standards division program director Ryan Pieper presented the non-accreditation recommendation for Infinity, and he referenced a multitude of compliance issues, including a failure to submit reports to the department in a timely manner and a lack of an accreditation audit for the year.

Pieper said the school did not communicate with its regional accreditation officer from January until June, and he confirmed that the school shut down in January and told its students to go somewhere else. The OKC private school has been located at 5517 NW 23rd St. in a building that formerly housed Windsor Hills Baptist Church.

Board members ultimately tabled votes on Infinity’s and TPS’ accreditations.

Uncertainty lingers for Tulsa Public Schools’ accreditation

At their meeting in July 2022, Oklahoma State Board of Education members downgraded Tulsa Public Schools’ accreditation to “accredited with warning” following HB 1775 complaints.

The district’s accreditation had come into question after a teacher in the district submitted a complaint to OSDE regarding HB 1775, which banned the teaching of certain concepts about race and gender in Oklahoma public schools.

The complaint, which was obtained by Public Radio Tulsa, stated the teacher was forced to take a professional development training course that included statements the staff member said “shame white people for past offenses.” The training took place in August 2021 and was supplied through a third-party vendor.

Gov. Kevin Stitt and Walters, the one-time secretary of education whom Stitt supported during his run for state superintendent, have been vocal critics of TPS, which stayed closed for an extended period of time during the COVID-19 pandemic and has been the subject of an investigation related to potential embezzlement.

On Thursday, Walters suggested that TPS has a variety of issues that need further consideration before the board votes on the district’s accreditation. Walters emphasized that all options are being considered for TPS, including removal of accreditation.

“All possible actions are on the table with Tulsa Public Schools. What we have seen is a district that has failed the students, they failed the parents and they failed the teachers there,” Walters told reporters after the meeting. “We are looking at all possible actions with this district to ensure that all state laws or rules are being upheld by that district in a way that benefits those kids. The performance of the school speaks for itself. We are going to take a serious look.”

While he did not go into detail on TPS’ issues, Walters did mention a few broad problems, including the embezzlement investigation and alleged misreporting of finances. Walters called problems with the district “severe” and said TPS is “plagued with scandal.”

Walters’ comments about TPS have sat poorly with district parent Ashley Daly, who regularly drives to Oklahoma City to attend state board meetings and speak during the public comment portion.

“I don’t think Ryan Walters has any room to talk about corruption and stealing money when he is under investigation for the mismanagement of millions of dollars that should have gone to our school students,” Daly said after Thursday’s meeting. “I think it’s unethical and cruel and unprecedented that he is considering trying to remove our accreditation at the beginning of a school year. I don’t think he has any understanding of how that would work for our large community.

“TPS is one of Tulsa’s largest employers, and school is supposed to start in two weeks. To threaten this in this way further risks our children’s capacity to be in school.”

Walters, who has met privately with Daly in the past to hear her concerns, said additional issues with TPS are “open-ended,” he said his department will perform a “deep” dive on the district.

“We also have the issues of some other things that we’ll be bringing up as well that our team has found,” Walters said. “We take accreditation very seriously. We want to ensure that we have turned over every stone.”

The board’s decision to delay the TPS vote comes after Walters held a press conference Friday to advocate for TPS board member E’lena Ashley, who said she was chastised by Superintendent Deborah Gist and board President Stacey Woolley after she said a public prayer during a graduation ceremony.

At that press conference, Walters said Ashley’s religious freedom was violated and mentioned TPS’ accreditation. Gist pushed back on Walters’ TPS criticisms in her own press conference Wednesday, calling the state’s accreditation process “wildly bureaucratic and completely un-transparent” and expressing displeasure with Walters’ rhetoric.

“I see these behaviors, and I feel disappointed. I feel frustrated. I feel sometimes angry, because this is not what kids deserve,” Gist said.

State Board of Education meetings becoming a spectacle

state board of education accreditation
A crowd, featuring mostly supporters of Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters, began assembling even before sunrise Thursday, July 27, 2023, ahead of an Oklahoma State Board of Education meeting. (Bennett Brinkman)

Thursday marked the Oklahoma State Board of Education’s first gathering since physical and verbal confrontations at last month’s meeting resulted in criminal charges being filed. The widely publicized brouhaha between pro-Walters and anti-Walters activists seemed to draw even more members of the public to Thursday’s meeting, which featured a strict capacity limit and “legal observers” with the National Lawyers Guild.

A large crowd of Ryan Walters supporters gathered outside the Oliver Hodge Building sporting signs bearing Walters’ name. Some called for Attorney General Gentner Drummond’s resignation.

As Daly prepared to leave the building Thursday, she received an unexpected escort from security personnel. A regular attendee of state board meetings who has tried to engage with officials — she gifted board members lettuce seeds in the spring — Daly called Thursday’s experience “scary” and “upsetting.”

“There were legal observers from the National Lawyers Guild, and I guess because of things they heard from the crowd, they felt it was important for me to walk out with security for my safety,” Daly said. “It doesn’t seem fair that I was there to see if my child’s school was going to be open, and people were following me. That doesn’t seem fair.”

Beyond the accreditation votes, board members amended their request from an April meeting for a report of district’s diversity, equity and inclusion programs to include more specific language and ensure compliance from districts.

Walters said some districts, including Tulsa, had complied with the letter, but not the spirit, of the request.

“What we’ve noticed from preliminary reports that we’ve already received is some districts were failing to comply with the spirit of your order,” OSDE deputy general counsel Andy Ferguson told board members.

The board also approved new alternate standards for social studies, career readiness and life skills that will align to a new alternate diploma that special education students can receive upon graduation.

Each of these actions took place in the second half of the four-hour meeting. The first two hours almost entirely consisted of members of the public making comments to the board.

In total, 33 people spoke to board members, and their comments ranged from supporting Walters to protesting him to speaking about matters unrelated to Thursday’s meeting.

List of school districts and schools receiving accreditation actions

The following school districts and specific schools received an accreditation action Thursday. The list includes entire districts and specific schools, as designated.

Action: Accredited with warning

  • Cherokee Public Schools (elementary, middle and high schools)
  • Little Axe High School
  • Leach Public Schools
  • Kenwood Public Schools
  • Moseley Public Schools
  • Oaks-Mission High School
  • Chickasha’s Lincoln Elementary School
  • Terral Public Schools
  • Tonkawa Elementary School
  • Bokoshe Public schools
  • Billings Public Schools (elementary and high schools)
  • Morrison Public Schools (elementary, middle and high schools)
  • Carlton Landing Academy (charter school)
  • Pittsburg Public Schools (elementary and high schools)
  • Wanette Public Schools
  • Optima Public Schools
  • Hardesty Public Schools
  • Tulsa PS’ Memorial Middle School
  • Tulsa PS’ Monroe Demonstration Middle School
  • Tulsa PS’ Daniel Webster High School

Action: On probation

  • Hulbert Public Schools
  • Western Heights Public Schools
  • Straight Public Schools
  • KIPP Tulsa (charter school)
  • Deborah Brown Charter School
  • Sankofa Charter School