Four members of Tulsa Public Schools board stand before the State Board of Education during a discussion over the district's accreditation on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023. (Bennett Brinkman)

Tulsa Public Schools will maintain local control of its operations for the time being following an Oklahoma State Board of Education decision today to accredit the district with deficiencies.

The unanimous vote followed a nearly-two-hour discussion among state board members and members of the TPS Board of Education about the district’s three cited deficiencies:

  • Oklahoma Cost Accounting System violations,
  • Untimely submission of required reports, and
  • Lack of financial transparency.

While none of the three identified deficiencies deals with academics in the district, much of the board members’ discussion regarding accreditation focused on student academics. To that end, board member Donald Burdick’s motion to accredit the district with deficiencies also included a requirement for TPS to improve its academic outcomes.

The motion required:

  • TPS teachers to receive training in science of reading-based literacy instruction practices,
  • Creation of a corrective action plan for each TPS school on the state F-list, and
  • New internal financial controls with monthly, in-person progress reports to both the TPS board and the state board.

TPS’ accreditation with deficiencies status is a step above its accreditation status from the past year. Last July, the board downgraded TPS’ accreditation to “accredited with warning” owing to alleged violations of HB 1775, a law banning the teaching of certain concepts of race and gender.

Thursday’s state board action was the culmination of weeks’ worth of speculation about whether Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters, as chairman of the State Board of Education, would attempt to take over governance of TPS like the board did with Western Heights Public Schools in 2021.

On Tuesday, TPS Superintendent Deborah Gist — who had been the target of Walters and other district critics for months — announced her resignation effective Sept. 15. The TPS Board approved Gist’s departure and named TPS chief learning officer Ebony Johnson as interim superintendent. The leadership transition appeared to be some sort of agreement between key stakeholders ahead of Thursday’s looming accreditation vote.

“Tulsa has been given an opportunity to correct themselves. And to be very clear, I will not let this district fail,” Walters said after the state board’s accreditation motion passed Thursday. “If they do not fix these problems, I will. The clock is started. There will be accountability.”

Walters emphasized that if the state board does not see change in TPS within “three to four months,” he will recommend taking more drastic action to force improvements in the district.

While some TPS community members celebrated the state board’s decision to leave control of the district with the local board, they also took issue with Walters’ comments.

“I’m thankful for local control,” said Ashley Daly, a TPS parent who regularly speaks at state board meetings. “I think it was a very aggressive move still asking our leaders to come back every month, and I think there were a lot of threats made about achieving certain outcomes that even academic education experts say are impossible. So I’m afraid.”

Gist departure may have averted state takeover

Tulsa Public Schools’ accreditation had been the subject of intense scrutiny since Walters asked state board members to delay voting on it at their meeting July 27.

Walters said at the time that issues in TPS, including financial misreporting and academic deficiencies, necessitated a closer look at the district.

Over the past four weeks, Walters had called for Gist’s removal and for financial and academic improvement in the district. Additionally, Walters has decried TPS for supposedly taking money from China, though the Tulsa World recently reported that the district actually pays a U.S. nonprofit with connections to the Chinese government for professional development services for its Chinese language program.

In a move that made national news, Gist announced her upcoming departure from the district in a letter sent to all staff Tuesday. In the letter, Gist said she was heartbroken to leave but that the move gave TPS its best chance at maintaining local control.

Wednesday night, all seven members of the TPS board of education voted to approve a mutual separation agreement with Gist that will take effect Sept. 15 at 11:59 p.m.

Frequently calling it “a dream come true,” Gist has been in her position since Feb. 2, 2015. She is a graduate of TPS’ Memorial High School, according to her bio on the district website.

When Gist took the TPS superintendent job, she returned to Tulsa from Rhode Island, where she had been the state’s commissioner of education since 2009. While in Rhode Island, Gist oversaw a redesign of the state’s education funding formula.

Before that, Gist was in Washington, D.C., serving in a number of positions, including as the city’s first state superintendent of education, executive director of Serve DC in the mayor’s office and as a policy analyst for the U.S. Department of Education.

In her departure letter, Gist celebrated some of the accomplishments TPS made under her tenure. These include expanding dual language learning opportunities and opening multiple Montessori schools.

During Thursday’s state board meeting, TPS board members praised the interim superintendent they chose Wednesday night: Ebony Johnson, the district’s chief learning officer. Johnson is a TPS graduate and former principal in the district.

“Dr. Johnson has the expertise to go into her schools and say, ‘Hold up. This is what we need to do, and this is how we need to do it. I’m not a micromanager, but if I’m placing you in a position, I expect for you to be able to get the results.’ She’s results driven, and that’s why she’s been successful,” TPS board member Jennettie Marshall told state board members. “That’s why I believe that the change is here. It’s not going to happen overnight. But the fact that we now openly acknowledge it — openly acknowledge it — we’ve taken the cherry off the top and the whipped cream we are saying, ‘Yes, we have not made the strides that we should have made over time.’ That’s what we haven’t done in the past, but we are putting a team together that is going to send us in a different direction.”

Other board actions: Infinity Generation, reports

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters greets members of the State Board of Education before a meeting on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023. (Bennett Brinkman)

Tulsa was not the state board’s only accreditation action Thursday. At their July meeting, board members also delayed a vote on OKC private school Infinity Generation’s accreditation following pleas from the school’s principal to wait until her lawyer spoke to the board.

OSDE’s accreditation division recommended non-accreditation for the school in July owing to the school shutting down in January. OSDE general counsel Bryan Cleveland again recommended non-accreditation at Thursday’s meeting.

“The school was closed for half a year and (…) you have to operate a school in order to be an accredited school,” Cleveland said.

Infinity Generation’s lawyer, who did not state his name, interjected remarks to the board Thursday to advocate for the school. Rather than refute the reason Cleveland gave for non-accreditation, the lawyer argued that the board had no authority to take action on the school’s accreditation owing to violation of the school’s “due process” and its rule-making authority.

Following the lawyer’s 10-minute diatribe, in which he alleged numerous violations of the Open Meeting Act and of the school’s due process rights, board members made a motion to end the lawyer’s speaking time owing to his refusal to stop talking.

Once the lawyer sat back down in the audience, the board voted unanimously not to accredit Infinity Generation for the new school year.

Besides accreditation actions, the state board also voted unanimously Thursday to require all districts to submit two special reports to OSDE:

  • A report of “foreign government contributions to Oklahoma schools,” and
  • A report regarding district policies and informal guidance for “student pronouns in Oklahoma schools.”

At the end of Thursday’s meeting, state board members also voted to approve reimbursement from the charter school closure revolving fund regarding its closure of Sovereign Community School, a former charter school for Indigenous students located in Oklahoma City. The board voted to begin the process of ending its sponsorship of the school in January owing to a number of problems it has faced since opening in 2019. Those issues related to almost all aspects of the school’s operation, including problems with low enrollment, poor finances and subpar academic scores

Meeting again draws a crowd

A crowd of people holding signs protesting and supporting State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters stand outside of the Oklahoma State Department of Education before a meeting of the State Board of Education on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023. (Bennett Brinkman)

Similar to other recent state board meetings, a crowd of Walters supporters and protesters gathered outside the OSDE building before the sun rose Thursday morning, and numerous members of the public signed up to make comments to the board.

The public comments section of the meeting took place after the TPS accreditation vote — drawing criticism from the Oklahoma Education Association — but 19 people still spoke about the district’s accreditation.

Many people used their time to praise Gist and other members of the TPS Board of Education.

“You’re not a strong leader,” TPS parent Ryan Daly — the husband of Ashley Daly — said to Walters during his time. “Let me tell you about strong leaders. I watched my school board come up here and humble themselves unnecessarily. I watched a lifelong Tulsan and a lifelong educator fall on her sword to save our district from what would surely be a bungled and disastrous takeover by someone who shows zero interest in our kids other than as a pawn for his political career.”

Others spoke in support of Walters.

“The only person that I have been able to trust politically speaking, is Ryan Walters,” said Lori Tuggle, a former Putnam City Schools Board candidate who alleged that the district has “sex clubs” in its schools. “He actually does what he said he would do. He is doing what I voted for him to do. And I only have one question for you: When are you going to start on Putnam City?”