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Hoping to rout state takeover of district, TPS superintendent announces resignation

TPS Superintendent Dr. Deborah Gist (left) with Ebony Johnson, chief learning officer, who may temporarily replace Gist.
Deborah Gist
TPS Superintendent Dr. Deborah Gist (left) with Ebony Johnson, chief learning officer, who may temporarily replace Gist.

Updated Tuesday, Aug. 22 at 9:30 p.m.

The superintendent of Tulsa Public Schools is stepping down amid an accreditation battle between the district and State Superintendent Ryan Walters.

Tulsa Superintendent Deborah Gist sent a letter to TPS employees Tuesday explaining her resignation. She says it’s an attempt to prevent a state takeover of the district. TPS is currently in a battle over its accreditation status with the State Board of Education, and specifically, Walters.

In her email, Gist said leaving the district is the “hardest thing [she’s] ever done.”

“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 wrote.

TPS’ school board has scheduled a special meeting for Wednesday evening to review Gist’s “mutual separation agreement” and the appointment of an interim superintendent, Ebony Johnson, the district’s Chief Learning Officer.

Walters’ focus on Tulsa Public Schools

Walters has targeted Gist for over a year for what he sees as the district’s failings, as well as for what he calls far-left indoctrination.

While he hasn’t explicitly said he wants Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist to resign, Walters indicated at an Aug. 7 press conference held at the Tulsa County Republican Party Headquarters he would like to see her leave.

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

More than any other district, Walters has focused criticism on Tulsa. He cites low academic performance, inappropriate books in school libraries, financial mismanagement, claims of indoctrination and violations of religious liberty.

Last summer was the first time Walters successfully led an effort to lower TPS’ accreditation. It dropped to “accredited with warning” for allegedly violating a state law that bans teaching certain topics about race and sex.

With Tulsa Public Schools’ current accreditation level at “accredited with warning,” the next step down would be “accredited with probation.” If the State Board of Education votes for this option, it still means the district will stay open.

But Walters may take it a step further. He told reporters “all options are on the table,” including removing TPS’ accreditation outright — despite a recommendation from the state department that the school’s accreditation be changed to “accredited with deficiencies.”

There is recent precedent for a state takeover of a district. The State Board of Education last year took over Western Heights in Oklahoma City for financial reporting violations, safety issues and a toxic work environment that led to the loss of more than 100 employees and even more students over two years.

Though Oklahoma City Public Schools have similar academic issues to TPS and have not received Walters’ ire, he has railed against TPS’ low reading scores, low state report card scores and a high-profile embezzlement case the district itself reported to authorities.

Gist has acknowledged the district has its shortcomings and said it is working on a plan for improvement. Walters, Gist said, is long on rhetoric — but short on comprehensive guidance.

“He has no plans. He has presented no plans,” Gist said at an August press conference. “He has not described or discussed any plans or efforts around supporting not just Tulsa Public Schools, but the state as a whole.”

The state department later released a document containing what it calls an “improvement plan,” but it doesn’t go into detail on how the department’s proposed objectives should be achieved. It calls on the district to “reorient finances to serve students,” “increase reading proficiency scores to the state average” and “get TPS schools [sic] off the F-list.”

Community members and officials respond

Tulsa community members voiced their frustrations with the accreditation debacle at Monday night’s TPS Board of Education meeting. State Rep. John Waldron (D-Tulsa) was critical of Walters’ rhetoric about the district.

“To call our district a failure is to do a disservice to the thousands of teachers, support staff and administrators who work every day to deliver excellence to more than 34,000 children in this district,” Waldron said during public comment.

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. responded to the resignation announcement Tuesday afternoon in a statement. Hoskin said TPS serves more than 800 Cherokee students, and the district “deeply impacts the economy and quality of life on our reservation.”

“I continue to be frustrated by the attacks on Tulsa Public Schools, and I am deeply disappointed that this has led to the resignation of a great public servant and education leader in our state. Dr. Gist has shown courage in the face of unprecedented and unjustified political attacks on the largest school system in our state,” Hoskin wrote. “I call upon all of the state’s civic, business and political leadership across this state to recognize the attack on Dr. Gist and Tulsa Public Schools will continue across all of public education unless we continue pushing back and encourage thoughtful ways to improve public education.”

Walters’ office released a statement Tuesday afternoon regarding Gist’s resignation, though he characterizes it as a “removal.”

“I’ve been crystal clear that Tulsa Public Schools needs a dramatic change in leadership, and I am pleased to see the board taking this seriously with the removal of Deborah Gist,” Walters wrote. “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.”

Oklahoma’s State Board of Education meets Thursday, Aug. 24 at 9:30 a.m. at the Oliver Hodge Education Building in Oklahoma City. Meetings are usually live streamed on the department’s Facebook page.

KWGS’ Ben Abrams and Max Bryan contributed to this report.

Beth Wallis holds a journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma. Originally from Tulsa, she also graduated from Oklahoma State University with a bachelor's degree in music education and a master's degree in conducting performance. She was a band director at a public school for five years.