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City leaders speaking up about TPS accreditation fight

Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum, center, speaks to Tulsa City Council at a committee meeting at City Hall.
Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum, center, speaks to Tulsa City Council at a committee meeting at city hall. After the meeting, Bynum said he is "greatly concerned" about discussions surrounding Tulsa Public Schools' accreditation.

Tulsa’s city leaders are concerned about the situation between Tulsa Public Schools and Oklahoma Superintendent Ryan Walters.

Walters has floated the idea of taking away TPS’ accreditation, which would close the district and force the students to enroll in other districts. He’s demanded the district raise its student reading scores to at least state average in the upcoming academic year, and claims more than $1 million in embezzled money from the district is reason to lower its accreditation.

TPS Superintendent Deborah Gist claims Walters has misrepresented information she’s conveyed to him when he attacks her district — specifically the $1 million figure, which she called “categorically false” at her district’s school board meeting Monday. Walters has repeatedly brought up a high-profile embezzlement case that allegedly cost the district hundreds of thousands of dollars, which Gist says she’s been up front and responsive about.

Several board members at that meeting countered Walters’ claims that TPS is failing, arguing the district is meeting its goals for student success.

As TPS’ Aug. 24 accreditation vote approaches, city leaders have now spoken up about the situation. On Wednesday, Mayor G.T. Bynum said he’s “greatly concerned” about discussions surrounding TPS.

Bynum said he’s spoken with both Walters and TPS leadership.

“They both want Tulsa Public Schools to be better,” he said. “What I’m trying to get a good grasp on is, where is the disagreement on how we make TPS better, and where is the common ground there?”

Bynum ultimately cares that students in Tulsa get a good education, he said.

Before Bynum’s comments Wednesday, city councilors Vanessa Hall-Harper, Laura Bellis, Jeannie Cue and Crista Patrick penned a letter to the state Board of Education asking them not to take away TPS’ accreditation. The four councilors’ districts contain most of TPS.

The letter argues an accreditation downgrade or removal would hurt the city’s workforce development and ability to attract new businesses.

Bellis said the school district — which teaches more than 34,000 students, 80% of whom are economically disadvantaged — is “a key resource” for many families in Tulsa.

“We can’t pretend that our city’s future and economy isn’t inextricably bound to the success of our school system,” she said.

Bellis said public schools should be held accountable, but that state officials should collaborate with the district if they want to see improvement. While Walters say he’s seen “no desire” from TPS officials to improve, several board members say he hasn’t communicated with them when they've reached out.

After a packed school board meeting Monday night, Gist told reporters she’s been in contact with city leaders about Ryan Walters’ threats of stripping the school district of its accreditation.

“The leaders of our city, from the board to the city council to the mayor, the—the business leaders ... people are baffled about what the end goal is here. What are we seeking to do? What are we trying to accomplish by going after the largest school district in our state with things that are not even part of a body of factual information?” she said.

Public Radio Tulsa has reached out to Department of Education spokesperson Matt Langston for comment about city leaders’ response to a possible accreditation lowering.

Walters first said he would look at TPS’ accreditation at a July 21 rally prompted by Gist calling out a school board member who prayed at a graduation. At the rally, Walters said a “woke mob” is running the district.

Before he was elected superintendent, Walters led the charge to lower TPS’ accreditation to “accredited with warning” in 2022 after it allegedly violated a state law that prohibits certain teachings on race and sex. A presentation for teachers that highlighted racial disparities in classroom discipline throughout the country was cited in the lowering.

Gist claims the district’s full accreditation should be restored after she and the school board president met with a state accreditation officer.

KWGS reporter Ben Abrams contributed to this article.

Max Bryan is a news anchor and reporter for KWGS. A Tulsa native, Bryan worked at newspapers throughout Arkansas and in Norman before coming home to "the most underrated city in America." Several of Bryan's news stories have either led to or been cited in changes both in the public and private sectors.