ryan walters tulsa public schools
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters held a press conference on Monday, Aug. 7, 2023, to discuss Tulsa Public Schools. (Screenshot)

In a press conference that ended less than an hour before the start of a Tulsa Public Schools Board meeting Monday evening, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters announced three recommendations for the district as he considers taking action on its accreditation at the next State Board of Education meeting.

The state board delayed consideration of TPS’ accreditation at its last meeting, July 27, with some parents and school leaders saying it was inappropriate for Walters to threaten the district with a downgrade less than a month before classes start.

But Monday, Walters appeared at the Tulsa County Republican Party headquarters to discuss the district, which he has criticized for financial and academic reasons.

As Walters and members of the State Board of Education consider how to accredit TPS for the coming school year, which begins Aug. 17, Walters said Monday that the district must:

  • Reorient finances to serve students,
  • Increase reading proficiency scores to the state average, and
  • Lift its schools off of the state F-list.

“In the last seven years, we’ve continued to see failed leadership from Superintendent (Deborah) Gist here in Tulsa. What we’ve seen are students continue to have poor achievement, financial mismanagement and a lack of specificity around academic programs,” Walters said during the press conference. “But again, an analogy I used the other day is Tulsa Public Schools is a bus being driven by Superintendent Deborah Gist. That bus has veered off the road, that bus has gone into a ditch, and now that bus has crashed right into a tree. It is time to change leadership in Tulsa. It is time to put this district back on the right direction.”

Asked for clarification on his statements about Gist, Walters doubled down on his call for her removal.

“There should be a new superintendent in Tulsa Public Schools,” Walters said. “When you see the this type of leadership and you see this type of performance — Tulsans deserve better. She’s been here seven years. The trajectory is not good. We don’t see any serious plans to improve that.”

‘All options’ open for TPS

Walters’ statements come as critics and supporters of the district have been voicing their opinions in the weeks after the State Board of Education delayed a vote on TPS’ accreditation.

Walters has cited multiple reasons for taking a closer look at the district’s accreditation, including an ongoing embezzlement investigation. After the state board’s July 27 meeting, Walters called problems with the district “severe” and said TPS is “plagued with scandal,” although his accusations of financial issues have been vague.

On Monday, Walters said state board members are set to take up TPS’ accreditation at their next meeting, Aug. 24.

In his press conference, Walters said TPS receives more funding than the state aid average and uses too much of that money for administrative purposes. He also emphasized poor reading scores and “F” school grades as reasons he wants to take a closer look at accreditation for the district. Walters emphasized that neither he nor the state board has come to a decision on what to do about TPS at this time.

“We have not made a decision yet — that’s what we’re weighing out. But we’re laying out right here — there will be significant change,” Walters said. “What we’re doing is we’re continuing to look at all the documentation.”

Walters also said significant losses in enrollment and staffing have been issues for TPS. During his time on the campaign trail and in office, Walters has promoted creating more “school choice” for parents. TPS is already bordered by more affluent public school districts, and a host of public charter school and private school options also exist. In May, the Oklahoma Legislature passed and Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a bill creating new refundable tax credits for the parents of homeschool and private school students.

As Walters continues to weigh his options about TPS, various potential outcomes have been floated by observers.

The state board could decide to assume control of the district in the same way it took over Western Heights in July 2021. While in control of that district, the state board was able to force certain actions, including new hires and other governance decisions, when it felt the local Western Heights board was acting too slowly or making the wrong decision.

Just before their takeover of the Oklahoma City-area school district, state board members forced then-Western Heights Superintendent Mannix Barnes out of his role, stripping him of his educator certificate. He remained on leave with pay until his eventual resignation in December, during which time OSDE attempted to revoke Barnes’ superintendent certificate by taking him to court.

State board members lifted their intervention in Western Heights at a meeting in December after Barnes and three board members resigned.

Besides a takeover, other accreditation statuses could be applied to TPS. The district is currently accredited with warning owing to a reported HB 1775 violation last year. Now, state board members could choose to place TPS on full probation. Walters has also declined to rule out a non-accreditation vote on TPS, though it is unclear how that action would play out for a district of 33,000 students after the school year has already started.

Despite initially saying Monday afternoon that they would provide a statement about Walters’ press conference, TPS officials did not respond to requests for comment prior to publication of this article.

At the TPS board meeting Monday night, however, Gist and other board members pushed back on much of what Walters said in the press conference.

According to reporting from Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton of the Tulsa World, Gist implied that Walters’ citation of a “$1 million” figure regarding embezzled money might not be accurate.

“We don’t know how much is missing, and neither does the state superintendent, unless he has been collaborating with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who has told us it is highly inappropriate for us to comment given there’s an active investigation,” Gist said. “However, none of what we’ve seen adds up to $1 million.”

It is unclear whether Gist intended her remark as a dig against Walters, whose administration of federal GEER funds is being investigated by FBI agents and the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office, according to people with direct knowledge of the inquiry.

Other board members also acknowledged the press conference while insisting that the district is already working to improve its student outcomes.

“This is the largest district in the state of Oklahoma. We have children who depend on us. Have we dropped the ball? Absolutely, in many ways,” said board member Jennettie Marshall. “We are working to make the gains that it will take to get back on top of education. I believe before anyone should threaten this district with the loss of accreditation, they need to come sit down at the table and ask how they can help implement a plan.”

Walters: TPS is taking money from China

Sporting a “We the Parents” T-shirt, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters said Tulsa Public Schools is taking money from the Chinese government at a Canadian County Moms For Liberty event on Saturday, Aug. 5, 2023. (Bennett Brinkman)

Although he failed to address his claims at the press conference Monday, Walters has also accused TPS of taking money from China when explaining his reasons for delaying the district’s accreditation decision.

“You have communist China that is giving money to Tulsa Public Schools in order to try to undermine our United States government — our country. It’s unbelievable,” Walters said in a video filmed from his vehicle and posted to X, formerly known as Twitter. “There is absolutely no way we should allow the Chinese government to undermine our institutions here in America. The Chinese government and China wants to destroy America.”

Walters then doubled down on his claims at a Canadian County Moms for Liberty event Saturday.

“Tulsa Public Schools is getting money from the Chinese communist government,” Walters said as he addressed the crowd. “They funneled it through a nonprofit — I mean, money-laundered it through a nonprofit in Texas.”

Krehbiel-Burton explained in a Tulsa World article last week that TPS has a partnership with International Leadership of Texas, a nonprofit charter school network headquartered in Richardson, Texas, to provide professional development for a Chinese language teacher at Booker T. Washington High School.

While the services provided by the nonprofit through its Confucius Classroom Coordination Office were directly connected to the Chinese government before 2020, the program has since transitioned its management to the Chinese International Education Foundation, a nongovernmental organization sponsored by the Chinese government’s ministry of education.

TPS Deputy Superintendent Paula Shannon responded to Walters’ claims by saying: “Those resources and the teacher’s salary are paid for by the district. We’re not buying services from the Chinese government.”