Two days before the Oklahoma State Board of Education’s planned vote on the accreditation status of Tulsa Public Schools, Superintendent Deborah Gist announced a Sept. 15 resignation date this afternoon, calling it “the hardest thing I have ever done.”
Gist’s decision follows tumultuous weeks of public criticism from State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters, who has hinted at asking the state board to take over operations of TPS entirely.
In her letter to TPS staff sent Tuesday (embedded below), Gist said she believes her departure provides the district its best chance to avoid a takeover by the Walters-chaired state board.
“It is no secret that our state superintendent has had an unrelenting focus on our district and specifically on me, and I am confident that my departure will help to keep our democratically elected leadership and our team in charge of our schools–this week and in the future,” Gist said in the letter. “So I’m stepping away. What we have built together is larger and stronger than any one of us, and this team will continue to serve our students and make the improvements we know our students need and deserve.”
Gist said TPS needs to remain “aligned with the values of our community” and that local governance offers the best path forward.
“Tulsa is a community on the reservations of the Cherokee, Muscogee, and Osage Nations and is home to descendants of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre,” Gist said. “Our collective history of unrepaired harms is shameful, and depriving Tulsans of their collective voice over their schools would only add insult to injury.”
Walters celebrated Gist’s departure in a statement.
“I’ve been crystal clear that TPS needs a dramatic change in leadership and I am pleased to see the board taking this seriously with the removal of Deborah Gist,” Walters said in the statement. “From day one, I called for the removal of Gist in order to get the district on a path to success. I am optimistic that this is a step in the right direction, that TPS and the community takes their situation seriously. Financial transparency and academic outcomes must come next. I will always put Tulsa kids first.”
Tulsa Public Schools accreditation uncertain
At Walters’ request, members of the State Board of Education delayed a vote on TPS’ accreditation at a meeting July 27. Walters said he wanted to take a closer look at the district before deciding how to accredit the state’s largest school district, and he has repeatedly highlighted issues in the district, including poor student outcomes and a lingering investigation into alleged embezzlement. That allegation caused Gov. Kevin Stitt to request an investigative audit from State Auditor and Inspector Cindy Byrd.
Though Walters has repeatedly said “all options” are on the table for TPS’ accreditation status, including non-accreditation, a State Board of Education takeover of the district has been widely discussed as a possible outcome of their next regular meeting, set for Thursday. If the state board were to take over the district, it would effectively supersede Tulsa’s local school board, allowing state board members to force actions, such as the hiring and firing of personnel in the district.
Gist’s job status would have been uncertain at most under a state board takeover, as Walters has repeatedly criticized Gist’s seven-year leadership of the district.
“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 a recent press conference in Tulsa. “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.”
The TPS board is scheduled to hold a special meeting Wednesday evening to consider action on “a mutual separation agreement” with Gist. According to Gist’s letter, the board could also appoint Ebony Johnson, the district’s chief learning officer, as interim superintendent.