In the hastily arranged meeting, Walters singled out TPS for poor student test scores and alleged financial mismanagement. While he said no decision had been made about TPS’s educational accreditation, he demanded changes and said the school district was “uniquely bad” in the state.
Walters also called for the dismissal of Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist. Since his election a year ago, Walters has pushed an unabashedly conservative Republican education agenda in his critique of TPS and its administration. His choice of venue for the press conference, the Tulsa GOP party headquarters in south Tulsa, underlined the political undertones of his attacks.
In a regularly scheduled meeting held shortly after Walters’ appearance, the TPS Board of Education discussed the accreditation issue, including Walters’ statements. Superintendent Gist began the tense meeting with a fervent defense of the Tulsa school district, the largest school district in the state.
A rally for TPS
A chorus of other TPS Board members quickly voiced support for her. A couple of dozen demonstrators gathered outside the meeting at TPS headquarters to protest Walters’ broadscale assault on TPS and rally a defense of Gist. An overflow crowd of people attending the meeting also gave Gist a ringing endorsement.
Gist characterized Walters’ remarks as “inaccurate” and “blatantly false, bordering on a lie.”
Board President Stacey Woolley and Board member John Croisant led Gist through a series of questions rebutting Walters’ allegations. Some Board members were visibly upset about Walters’ attacks. They were cheered on by eruptions of support from the audience.
The Oklahoma State Board of Education (OSBE) plans to take up TPS accreditation later this month. The board was initially scheduled to address TPS last month but postponed the discussion. At the July meeting, the Board declined to accept the State Education Department Accreditation Section’s recommendation that the TPS accreditation be renewed, albeit with “deficiencies.” The deficiencies noted included “one week late” on a report to the agency, and a “lack of internal controls,” which was added after the standard review process, according to Gist. The latter accounting issue related to embezzlement at TPS in 2022, widely reported in the media then.
Walters’ press conference
In his press conference, Walters accused TPS of “financial mismanagement.” He also claimed this finding had been cited in three consecutive TPS independent audits. Chief Financial and Operations Officer Jorge Robles told the Board that was not true but related only to the most recent audit when the embezzlement occurred. He said previous audits had “unmodified opinions” that the district “met all established requirements.”
Walters announced his press conference at mid-afternoon on Monday, only a couple of hours before it started. The announcement came with a warning to the media that if the “media advisory is publicly distributed or posted on any social platform, the reporter and the media outlet will be immediately removed from our distribution list.” The public was not invited to Walters’ press event, but it was live streamed on local television networks and social media.
Due to hastily arranged appearance, the school district’s administration, and Board, meeting only minutes after the conclusion of the School Superintendent’s press conference, were unprepared to address all of Walters’ allegations.
Particularly noteworthy was Walters’ call for a TPS “Improvement Plan” that would require substantial student reading score improvements by the end of the upcoming academic year. Dr. Gist and the Board seemed blindsided by this demand and the specific targets, responding only partially to that set of statements.
TPS board response
TPS Board member Diamond Marshall appeared especially miffed at Walters’ remarks concerning planning, saying, “We have a strategic plan, and we are monitoring our goals.” Marshall, who represents District 2 is one of three African Americans on the Board.
Gist added the district could point to continuous progress on those measures. Marshall also expressed opposition to Superintendent Gist’s removal. Marshall told Gist at the meeting, “You are doing a great job.”
“Of course, TPS has room for improvement,” Marshall said in an interview with The Oklahoma Eagle. “But that is not the fault of Superintendent Gist, who is doing the best possible job. The district is impacted by the limited resources it has to work with.”
Board member Jennettie Marshall, unrelated to Diamond Marshall, expressed deep concern at the possibility of the loss of accreditation, saying, “It is 11:59 for the destiny of Tulsa Public Schools. We cannot afford to lose our accreditation.” Instead, she noted Walters, and the state should be asking, “How can I help you with your needs?” Board member E’Lena Ashley, who had joined Walters in a previous news conference, generally supported Walters’ agenda. “We are failing our children,” she said.
Gist acknowledged, “We have work to do, but we are doing that work.”