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Tulsa Public Schools Promotes Ebony Johnson To Superintendent
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Tulsa Public Schools Promotes Ebony Johnson To Superintendent

  • The Tulsa Public Schools Board of Education voted to approve interim superintendent Ebony Johnson as permanent superintendent in a 4-2 vote on Dec. 11. Johnson was named to the interim superintendent position in September 2023 to replace Deborah Gist, who resigned under heavy criticism from State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters.  
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Ebony Johnson, who has served for over three decades in various roles at TPS, is the first African-American woman to hold the permanent superintendent position. Her election came following a heated board meeting. Two African Americans on the board, including Jennettie Marshall (District 3) and E-Lena Ashley (District 4), voted against the motion. Jerry Griffin (District 6) abstained, citing a “personal conflict,” but said he supported the action. Griffin later announced his resignation from the board effective Jan. 2. 

The four board members who approved the appointment were Stacey Woolley (District 1), Diamond Marshall (District 2), John Croisant (District 5), and Susan Lamkin (District 7). 

The crowd, gathered in the meeting room at the Charles C. Mason Education Service Center, where the Board of Education held its meeting, broke into applause following the announcement of the vote. Later, Johnson circulated the room and shook hands with supporters. 

 “I call it an honor to be named at a time such as this when we really need strong leadership,” Johnson told the media in a press statement.  

“We need consistency, and the students need to know that things are moving in the right direction. They deserve that.”  

Johnson’s employment contract terms as superintendent were not immediately made public. However, after the executive session deliberation, the board amended the end date to June 30, 2026.  

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Process controversy 

The path to approving Johnson’s employment status was far from smooth. The TPS board debated the question in a Nov. 30 meeting but could not obtain a consensus and declined to act. 

To take action on Johnson’s employment in the December meeting, the board posted an agenda item to suspend its policy rules and deem the action an “emergency.” During the meeting, circumventing ordinary board policy was the subject of heated back and forth among board members and some public speakers.  

The TPS Board Policy Manual calls for “advertising [and] soliciting applicants for the position” and a selection process only “after a thorough consideration of qualified applicants.” If approved, the agenda item waived the selection process rule and dispensed with the requirement of posting the rule’s suspension for two consecutive public meetings. It also required the district board to declare an “emergency.”  

Board member Griffin questioned why this agenda measure was necessary. Legal counsel Bo Rainey of Rosenstein, Fist, and Ringold, who serves as legal counsel to the board, said that the Tulsa school district had received a credible legal threat if a national search were not undertaken as stipulated in the Policy Manual selection process. Rainey also explained to board members that waiving the rule would “insulate the board” so they could proceed with the appointment if desired. 

Marshall moved to table the rule waiver, joining Griffin in objecting to the process. In voicing her objections, Marshall laid out a long chronology of previous board events that allegedly violated board selection policies in various ways. 

Marshall accused the “board leadership of deception and manipulation.” She added that the malicious “efforts were intentional and cast a cloud of darkness over the process.” Marshall’s motion to table the rule waiver failed. The board waived its rules and moved into executive session to consider an employment contract for Ebony Johnson as the new superintendent. An hour and one-half later, the board emerged from the executive session, briefly discussed, and approved Johnson’s contract. 

Walters’ objects 

State Superintendent Walters voiced his objection to Johnson’s appointment through social media. In a posting on Meta (formerly known as Facebook) Walters posited his disapproval in the form of a “Memo” to Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum and the TPS board. He wrote, “[T]here should be an aggressive national search” to fill the position. He used the posting to list a series of actions the “next superintendent” should take. He also leveled direct criticism at Johnson, although he did not mention her by name. He wrote that the TPS leadership should “Stop playing around the edges with programs that do not work and schools that continue to fail.” 

Walters has leveled a drumbeat of criticisms against TPS in the past few months. He sought to sanction the district for poor academic performance and alleged financial mismanagement. Gist’s resignation in August temporarily thwarted Walters’ efforts to have the Oklahoma State Board of Education (OSBE) “take over” the local elected school board responsibilities. 

Yet, Walters’ OSBE staff became openly critical of TPS leadership at the board’s Nov. 30 meeting, reporting that the school leadership lacked cooperation and ambition in making necessary reforms. 

Immediately following the state staff presentation, at Walters’ urging, the state board mandated new academic performance benchmarks and other measures for Tulsa Public Schools to achieve “by the end of the school year.”  

Johnson responds 

Interim Superintendent Johnson issued a scathing written response to Walters’ social media posting and a rebuttal to the criticism made of TPS and the superintendent’s leadership at the Nov. 30 meeting. The response was issued to the press just hours before the December district board meeting and Johnson’s subsequent promotion from interim status. 

See Also
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In her statement, Johnson expressed dismay that Walters had questioned Johnson’s “commitment, competency, and level of concern.” She accused Walters of making “statements in the social media post that were misleading or completely false.” She then issued a point-by-point recitation of initiatives and accomplishments made under her leadership. 

Johnson doubled down on her rebuttal to Walters in her remarks during the board meeting. Appearing angry at Walters’ criticism, in a shaking voice, she expressed exasperation and “gratitude that educators have not walked out on us.” Her presentation was repeatedly interrupted by thunderous applause from the overflow audience in the meeting room. 

Local support for Johnson  

Days following the state education board meeting imposing new standards on TPS, Bynum urged the local board to name Johnson the permanent superintendent. In a letter to the Tulsa education board, Bynum said, “While national searches have normally been conducted when this job was vacant in the past, this is not a normal time.” 

While acknowledging TPS needed improvement, Bynum noted interim Superintendent Ebony Johnson “is laser-focused on delivering better outcomes” and “has dramatically enhanced collaboration with the State of Oklahoma.” 

Following Bynum’s letter, over 200 community leaders sent another letter endorsing Johnson’s candidacy. This endorsement included north Tulsa City Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper and Oklahoma State Representative Monroe Nichols. Nichols is a candidate to replace Bynum as mayor in the August 2024 election. Bynum’s term expires in December of that year, and the two-term mayor is not seeking reelection. 

Johnson: Career at TPS 

Ebony Johnson, Ed.D, started her professional career as a classroom teacher at Monroe Middle School in 1999. After serving as a principal in several schools, she rapidly progressed through leadership positions in TPS, becoming executive director of Student and Family Support Services in 2017 and overseeing several key initiatives. In 2020, she ascended to the TPS Chief Academic Officer role before becoming interim superintendent in September of this year. 

Johnson is a Tulsa Public Schools graduate, mother of a Rogers High School graduate, and aspiring Booker T. Washington graduate. She has been married for 23 years to Marcal Johnson, a Central High School counselor. 

Bynum issued the following statement following TPS board action. “A leader can’t recruit and retain a great team if that leader has no job stability. This vote was a big step forward for all who want to see a rapid improvement in outcomes for Tulsa Public Schools. I am so grateful for the wisdom of the locally elected board members who have now empowered Dr. Ebony Johnson to build the team she needs around her to achieve the excellence so many expect.” 

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