The Oklahoma State Board of Education (OSBE) will meet Thursday to consider the downgrading of Tulsa Public Schools (TPS) accreditation and possible takeover of Tulsa schools. The Board is also scheduled to discuss a so-called “Improvement Plan” proposed by Ryan Walters, Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Instruction. Walters’ plan, announced earlier this month, would make radical changes in the management of TPS with the purported objective of increasing student test scores, correcting alleged financial mismanagement, and removing Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist.
Gist announced her resignation as TPS Superintendent on Tuesday, August 22 in an apparent attempt to stave off the threatened state takeover of the district’s school system. Dr. Ebony Johnson, the Chief Learning Officer at TPS will replace Gist as the interim administrator. The board is scheduled to meet on September 23 to finalize the terms of Gist’s departure and Johnson’s appointment.
The Tulsa School Board and Gist have repeatedly opposed the downgrading of TPS accreditation that would be a prerequisite to forcing the implementation of Walters’ plan. Walters has voiced increasingly sharp critiques of TPS. He has publicly stated the State Board has “the authority under the State constitution” to take over Tulsa Public Schools.
In spite of Gist’s sudden resignation, the OSBE board is poised to impose some sanctions against TPS. The make-up of the OSBE Board tilts against TPS. The other board members are political appointees chosen by Gov. Kevin Stitt, who has also been an outspoken critic of TPS and Gist. While the Board is composed mostly of whites, eighty percent of the Tulsa school enrollment are minorities, including approximately 7,500 Black and 3,500 who self-identify as representing two or more races.
In July, the State Board postponed the accreditation action on TPS while approving over 500 other school districts, reportedly to conduct more research and consider accreditation options. At that meeting, the Board refused to accept the recommendation of its professional staff that the TPS accreditation be renewed.
TPS School Board members acknowledge that the district schools are in a crisis mode. Superintendent Gist called the state board’s inaction in July on TPS “unprecedented.” She pushed for the approval of the accreditation “with one deficiency.” That deficiency would be for a late filing of only one report to the state agency. TPS Board member Jennettie Marshall characterized the crisis as analogous to a clock that displays “11:59 for the destiny of Tulsa Public Schools.” Marshall, who represents District 3, is one of three African American Tulsa School Board members. In its Aug. 7 meeting, the Tulsa School Board and many TPS supporters voiced their opposition to Walters’ accreditation threats and his plan for State Board takeover of the management and operations of TPS.
What’s at stake
The OSBE’s possible accreditation actions are outlined in the 280-page Standards for Accreditation of Oklahoma Schools. Based on the Education Department’s annual compliance review and findings, the Board is charged with bestowing accreditation status on each Oklahoma school district. These range in order from best to worse: with no deficiencies, with deficiencies, warning, probation, and Non accreditation.
The downgrade of TPS accreditation to probationary status would give the OSBE sweeping authority to implement Walters’ plan. Gist spoke to this possibility in response to a question posed by The Oklahoma Eagle at a press conference via Zoom on Aug. 9. She said a probationary status was equivalent to a takeover because she said it would give the Board “substantial authority over [TPS] expenditures, policies, and who serves on the district board and as superintendent.”
The Standards for Accreditation states “Accreditation with Probation” results from a finding that a “school site consistently fails to make progress to remove previous years’ deficiencies; and/or, consistently violates regulations; and/or, deliberately and unnecessarily violates one or more of the regulations.” The State Board has yet to identify which regulations TPS has allegedly violated. Indeed, Superintendent Gist and Tulsa Board President Stacey Woolley have publicly stated many of Walters’ complaints about TPS are not violations found in the Standards for Accreditation.
The most severe potential action – the total withdrawal of TPS accreditation – would have extraordinary adverse consequences. However, “Non accreditation” in Oklahoma law Title 70 requires the State Board to first “provide for warnings and assistance to schools and school districts whenever there is reason to believe a school is endanger of losing its state accreditation.”
Should TPS lose accreditation, the Oklahoma statute states, “… the State Board of Education shall close the school and reassign students to accredited schools within the district or shall annex the district to one or more other districts…” However, at the July meeting, State Board members went to great lengths to explain that TPS “school doors would open, and teachers would be paid.”
Compliance review irregularities
An OSDE Regional Accreditation Officer submitted this year’s “compliance report” and accreditation recommendation to Tulsa School District officials in May. The official review found only one district-level deficiency for a report submitted to the OSDE because TPS submitted it one week late. In a media conference the day before the July State Board meeting, Superintendent Gist said that the district files “more than 250 reports every year” but that she accepted and signed the “one deficiency” accreditation document, as did the State’s officer. The Oklahoma Eagle has confirmed this, obtaining the document through an open records request. Ryan Pieper, executive director of accreditation, would subsequently tell the State Board that late reporting was the most typical district deficiency and occurred in over 100 district instances statewide for this compliance review period.
However, in July, only days before the State Board meeting, Gist was presented with a superseding report that added an unexpected deficiency. Gist told the media it related to the district being the victim of embezzlement of district funds discovered in 2022, promptly reported to criminal investigation agencies, which was also widely reported by the media. An open records request revealed that this deficiency was described as a “lack of internal controls.” Gist told the press, later confirmed by The Oklahoma Eagle, that she refused to sign the acknowledgment adding the deficiency, saying the Oklahoma State Department of Education, headed by Walters, added this deficiency after the annual review and without notice. In her media conference, Gist said, “We found it. We reported it. We’ve addressed it.”
TPS issues and incidents
Nevertheless, the embezzlement involved hundreds of thousands of dollars and a high-ranking TPS district official. That prompted the school board’s the two African American members to call for a complete “forensic audit.” When the superintendent and other school board members rejected their efforts, Jennettie Marshall and E’Lena Ashley asked Gov. Stitt to call for one. The Governor did, and a year later, an audit by the Oklahoma State Auditor and Inspector is still underway.
More recently, Superintendent Walters rebuked TPS officials for a “reprimand” of Tulsa School Board member E’Lena Ashley for a prayer she led at an official school graduation ceremony. Ashley invoked the name of Jesus Christ in her prayer in what is likely a violation of the U.S. Constitution established by prior Supreme Court rulings. In 1962, the Supreme Court agreed with a petitioner that “prayer in its public school system breaches the constitutional wall of separation between Church and State.”
Following Ashley’s prayer, TPS School Board President Stacey Woolley, sent an email to Ashley, which stated Dr. Gist would be sending a letter to school board members providing instructions on such matters. Woolley said the letter would require, in part, “that in the future, all board members must use only the exact language in the scripts provided to them for graduation ceremonies.” Ashley and Walters condemned this communication as violating “religious liberties.” And both Ashley and Walters subsequently called for Gist’s dismissal.
The Oklahoma State Department of Education accreditation officials did not cite low student test scores as a deficiency. Nevertheless, low scores have fueled Superintendent Walters and the State Board’s criticism of the district. Tulsa Public Schools student test scores lag state averages in every category, while Oklahoma is among the lowest performing states. In response to a question at a recent media conference, Gist deflected this criticism by pointing out that test scores in urban areas are generally below both state and national averages. Multiple studies, including the OSDE’s Oklahoma Report Card, show economically disadvantaged students fare poorer on standardized tests. Almost 80 percent of TPS students are economically disadvantaged.
The OSBE’s consideration of harsher penalties this year is eerily similar to the Board’s action a year earlier. The Board ignored the professional staff recommendation and downgraded TPS to “Accreditation with Warning” for conducting racial “implicit bias” training. That State Board action was taken based on a complaint from a white Memorial High School teacher who griped the course “shame white people for past offenses in history.”
This year’s postponement of Tulsa’s accreditation again brought outcries that TPS is being singled out for punishment. Former Tulsa Public School principal and 30-year experienced educator, Mike Howe, told the Board at its July meeting, “TPS is being targeted, and I don’t understand that.”
Ashley Daly, a TPS parent, also said to the State Board she was “really, really scared for my school district.” Walters responded, claiming the Tulsa district has “severe and unique problems” that we need to “dig into…to see if left-wing extremism [is] being pushed into these programs.”
In an Aug. 8 press conference Superintendent Walters continued his criticism of TPS, calling the district “uniquely bad,” laying much of the blame on Gist. Within days after that, Walters’ OSDE website posted a video continuing TPS attacks. This time, the criticism also references Tulsa’s “failing schools” from 2009-14, when Gist was not superintendent.
The OSDE video reminds viewers, perhaps unwittingly, that criticism of Oklahoma’s urban schools is not new, nor is criticism of the State Board’s grading of Oklahoma schools. Archived video footage presents former TPS Superintendent Keith Ballard, who had led opposition to the State’s grading system for school accreditation, saying in 2013, “We need to have a better definition of a failing school.”
In its Pathways to Opportunity Strategic Plan, Tulsa Public Schools has multi-year reading goals using its own independent testing regiment to assess progress. Last month, the district administration reported to the local Board it was “on target” to achieve its ambitious goals of improving K-8th grade reading scores for economically disadvantaged students over the 2022-2027 period.