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Officials react to Gov. Stitt's call for audit of Tulsa Public Schools

Dr. Deborah Gist on July 8, 2022
TPS livestream
Dr. Deborah Gist on July 8, 2022

Tulsa Public Schools Board members, state Secretary of Education Ryan Walters, and Superintendent Dr. Deborah Gist reacted Friday to Gov. Kevin Stitt’s public call for an audit of TPS.

Stitt’s audit request comes after an announcement from TPS that it’s cooperating with local law enforcement over discovered irregularities in a vendor contract.

Five-year board member Dr. Jennettie Marshall who represents District 3 asked Stitt for the audit in a letter. She says she’s been requesting an audit for years because she wants TPS’ performance to improve.

“The lack of academic attainment with our children, the fact that our children are reading at the third grade or below level when they’re graduating from high school, those are real issues,” said Marshall.

TPS has suffered from low test scores, though officials say a high poverty rate without accompanying investment is a cause. Oklahoma spends far less per pupilthan other states, and pay for teachers ranks in the bottom half nationally.

During a press conference with fellow board member E'Lena Ashley of District 4 and Walters, Marshall emphasized she’s not been given the leeway to examine the credentials of third-party vendors despite repeated requests.

“During my tenure on the board, I have continuously asked for bidder and company portfolios before a vote is conducted to ensure the board has full knowledge,” said Marshall.

Ashley also signed the letter requesting the audit. She said she’s only been to four board meetings since narrowly being elected this year, but said she has felt “pressured” to approve agenda items and contracts.

Despite repeated and varied complaints posted to social media, Walters said his heralding of the audit should not be seen as part of a continued attack on public schools.

“I don’t think most people see an audit as any kind of attack,” said Walters.

In her own press conference, Gist said the investigation into the incident involving the contract irregularity is ongoing and she's not able to share details or pin a cost to the event yet. She emphasized her response, saying she handled the discrepancy without delay.

“My efforts at transparency have resulted in quite a lot of coverage of this incident that we are managing, as there should be. I expect that.”

Referring to scandals occurring during the Stitt administration that have yet to be resolved, Gist said the governor should speak up himself.

“Unfortunately, I think the governor has a lot of questions he needs to answer about some of those recovery dollars. I think there are numerous examples of real problems.”

On Thursday State Auditor Cindy Byrd acknowledged she received the governor’s request. State law now compels an audit to move forward.

Before joining Public Radio Tulsa, Elizabeth Caldwell was a freelance reporter and a teacher. She holds a master's from Hollins University. Her audio work has appeared at KCRW, CBC's The World This Weekend, and The Missouri Review. She is a south Florida native.