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As Walters orders national superintendent search, TPS set to consider Johnson's status Monday

Interim Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Ebony Johnson delivers the district's improvement plan at the September 2023 Oklahoma Board of Education meeting.
Beth Wallis
StateImpact Oklahoma
Interim Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Ebony Johnson delivers the district's improvement plan at the September 2023 Oklahoma Board of Education meeting.

As Tulsa Public Schools continues the fight to keep its accreditation, its school board members may vote to make interim superintendent Dr. Ebony Johnson the district’s official leader.

The school board’s discussion and vote on Johnson’s status is scheduled for Monday, according to a school board agenda. The agenda was published Friday, the same day State Superintendent Ryan Walters posted a letter on social media to the board and Mayor G.T. Bynum demanding TPS conduct a nationwide search for a new district superintendent.

TPS' school board installed Johnson as the district's interim superintendent in August after former superintendent Deborah Gist stepped down to keep the state board of education from lowering the district’s accreditation. Walters cited financial mismanagement and student performance in his threats to either lower the district’s accreditation or take it away entirely. Oklahoma does not currently use educational outcomes as criteria for accreditation.

Since stepping into her current role, Johnson has presented on a monthly basis plans to improve student outcomes and corresponding progress reports to Walters and the state board of education.

Bynum and TPS Board President Stacey Woolley have expressed a desire to make Johnson the district's permanent superintendent. These endorsements come as Walters has insisted the district's goals aren't ambitious enough.

In a letter to the TPS Board, Bynum said local control of the district depends on making improvements "on an expedited timeframe."

"Maintaining interim status weakens Dr. Johnson's ability to lead a successful effort," Bynum wrote, adding that he has "complete confidence" in Johnson's leadership.

Bynum also said Johnson's permanence adds stability help to fill senior leadership positions. TPS board Vice President John Croisant agreed, saying several members of TPS administration have recently left, and Johnson won’t be able to effectively hire for these roles until the board makes her position official.

Walters’ letter says the next superintendent must take bold steps to remove district school sites off the state report card "F list." It also reiterated requirements the state board passed at last month's meeting — that TPS either reach 50% of students scoring "basic" on state tests, or improve by 5% year-over-year.

It also says the next superintendent should ensure teachers "receive the best reading training possible" and "seriously address the finances of the district."

"The State Board of Education will not sit around idly while continuing to let TPS continue down the trajectory they were on under previous leadership. Stop playing around the edges with programs that do not work and schools that continue to fail. There needs to be drastic change to turn the district around, and the next Superintendent needs to be aggressive in pursuing those changes," the letter reads.

Walters has pointed to a case where former TPS chief learning officer Devin Fletcher fabricated purchase orders and invoices, and inflated vendor costs, from the district and its giving foundation when arguing the district lacks financial control. Fletcher has since pled guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and is ordered to pay the district more than $600,000.

As for student performance, TPS' latest test results show only 12.9% of students meet or exceed grade-level standards for English proficiency. The state average is 27.2%.

To address this deficiency, Johnson has committed the district to training 95% of elementary and secondary teachers in the science of reading, monitor effective implementation, and use student achievement data to track student progress and inform reading interventions. The science of reading — phonics, phonological awareness, word recognition, fluency, vocabulary, language comprehension and text comprehension — is widely proven to be effective.

When asked what Walters means in light of Johnson’s efforts, Walters spokesperson Dan Isett said the letter “speaks for itself.”

Isett gave the same answer when asked if the state board would support Johnson if TPS chose her as the district superintendent. Walters said in his letter that the state board of education "wants to use every resource at its disposal" to support the next superintendent.

In a statement issued after Walters' letter, Woolley said the district is unlikely to attract strong candidates for the job as Walters continues to threaten the district's accreditation.

"Either Superintendent Walters believes the problems we face are urgent, or he doesn't," the statement reads. "I can't speak for him, but I can say this: urgent problems demand urgent solutions. And it is impossible for a temporary leader to create permanent change."

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.