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Tulsa Public Schools to keep local control, accreditation after August State Board of Education meeting

State Superintendent Ryan Walters warns Tulsa Public Schools, "Do not test me," while a meeting attendee reacts behind him.
Beth Wallis
StateImpact Oklahoma
State Superintendent Ryan Walters warns Tulsa Public Schools, "Do not test me," while an meeting attendee reacts behind him.

Tulsa Public Schools will stay under local control after Thursday’s State Board of Education meeting, despite predictions the district would be taken over by the state.

The move comes a day after the TPS board voted for a mutual separation from Superintendent Deborah Gist, who announced she would step down in the hopes of staving off a state takeover.

The district is now accredited with three deficiencies — an upgrade from its former status decided last year, when it was downgraded for allegedly violating a law that prohibits certain conversations on race and gender. The decision means the school will stay open and under control of the TPS school board.

The three deficiencies are: submitting untimely reports, violating state codes on financial accounting and a lack of financial transparency to school board members.

The district must now present a monthly in-person review with three focuses: professional development over the science of reading, a corrective action plan for schools with a F-rating on the state report card, and a plan to prevent embezzlement - an issue at the heart of a current criminal investigation.

State Superintendent Ryan Walters warned the district the options to pull accreditation or initiate a state takeover are still on the table if he doesn’t feel TPS has improved enough.

“I want to be crystal clear,” Walters said. “If [enough improvement] does not happen, I leave every option on the table to force this district to serve these kids. I’m willing to do anything to turn this school around. I would advise Tulsa Public Schools, their leadership — do not test me.”

Notably, the meeting’s agenda split from the usual format of past meetings, with the public comment period scheduled after the TPS accreditation vote — an issue several commenters complained stifled the impact of their words to the board. Citizens also complained about the meeting room’s small size limiting public participation — it has a capacity of 49 people, leaving few open seats for non-officials and non-media attendees.

‘Rooting out a cancer of the district’

Tulsa Superintendent Deborah Gist sent a letter to TPS employees Tuesday explaining her resignation, which was confirmed at Wednesday’s local school board meeting. She said the move was an attempt to prevent a state takeover of the district.

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

At Thursday’s state board meeting, Walters appeared to take credit for Gist’s resignation, repeatedly calling it a “removal.”

“Having outlined my expectations very clearly, I am very pleased to see that Tulsa Public Schools took the effort to do as I requested and remove Deborah Gist from leadership,” Walters said. “... I do believe the board has made a significant step in rooting out a cancer of the district that caused so many problems.”

Walters also alleged Gist’s “lack of transparency.” Oklahoma State Department of Education general counsel Bryan Cleveland laid out the case, saying Walters had received complaints from “multiple board members” they weren’t getting requested financial information.

“It appears that the administration of the District of Tulsa was not sharing the financial information, fully and transparently, with the local board,” Cleveland said. “I pulled some of the public reports where you can see that Tulsa doesn’t provide as much transparency to its board members as other large school districts do.”

Cleveland also said in requesting several documents from the finance department at TPS, it seemed the documentation made available doesn’t have the same level of description routinely offered from other large districts.

State school board member Donald Burdick questions Tulsa Public Schools board members over plans for improvement.
Beth Wallis
StateImpact Oklahoma
School board member Donald Burdick questions Tulsa Public Schools board members over plans for improvement.

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

The district reported to authorities embezzlement in the hundreds of thousands of dollars by a former TPS Chief Learning Officer Devin Fletcher. Gist said during a July press conference the district took the investigation into the embezzlement case seriously and hasn’t tried to hide anything from authorities.

TPS also has low English proficiency scores compared to the rest of the state. Oklahoma’s most recent school report card from 2021-2022 indicates the district has a rate of 12.9% of students meeting or exceeding grade level standards for English. The state average is 27.2%.

Oklahoma City Public Schools, a district of a similar size and demographic makeup, has an English standards proficiency level of 11.7%.

The bomb-sized elephant in the room

While Tulsa issues were at the forefront of the meeting, a major situation brewing at a south Tulsa school remained unaddressed by Walters.

For three consecutive days, Tulsa-area Union Public Schools has faced bomb threats linked to posts shared by Walters criticizing an elementary librarian’s back-to-school TikTok video.

The librarian, which StateImpact is choosing not to name due to safety concerns, has also experienced bomb threats targeting her home. She posted a satirical video last week on TikTok saying she wasn’t finished pushing her woke agenda, and that her agenda is teaching kids to love books and be kind.

Monday evening, an altered version of the video was then shared by a far-right TikTok account, Libs of TikTok — an account known for its anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric. It left out the caption about teaching kids to love books and be kind. Libs of TikTok also added a picture of the librarian’s school bio to the end of the video, underlining a section that says she has a passion for teaching with an emphasis on social justice.

Tuesday morning, the librarian’s elementary school delayed its starting time after being notified of a bomb threat from the Tulsa Police Department.

That morning, State Superintendent Ryan Walters reposted the altered video and wrote, “Democrats say it doesn’t exist. The liberal media denies the issue. Even some Republicans hide from it. Woke ideology is real and I am here to stop it.”

It is unclear if Walters knew of the initial bomb threat before posting. Multiple requests for comment from Walters’ office have not been returned.

Wednesday morning, another bomb threat to the elementary school caused a second police response in as many days. Tulsa Police advised the school to shelter in place while it swept the facility. The librarian’s home was threatened again as well.

A third bomb threat came during the state board meeting Thursday. This one was aimed again at the elementary school and the librarian’s home, in addition to a Union enrollment center and an education service center.

Walters didn’t address the threats during the meeting despite several calls from public commenters and officials, including TPS School Board President Stacey Woolley, for him to tone down emboldening rhetoric.

“I would make a plea to call off attacks,” Woolley said. “Reasonable people can disagree reasonably, but antics and rhetoric must stop. We had two [now three] bomb threats in the last couple of days in the city of Tulsa because of rhetoric at schools, and that is not okay. We are here first and foremost to protect our students and everyone in those buildings.”

In a statement sent after the meeting, Tulsa Democratic Representative John Waldron also admonished Walters for fanning the flames.

“The incendiary rhetoric and political grandstanding of Ryan Walters contributed to violent threats and incendiary actions made against schools in our community,” Waldron wrote. “Reckless words have consequences, and when our state superintendent’s words threaten public safety, he must be held accountable. Today in Tulsa, our schools will continue to operate. But Walters’ administration will become a dark mark in the history of Oklahoma.”

At a press conference held after the meeting, reporters were allowed only 5 questions total and were instructed not to ask about anything outside of TPS or two other agenda items — a foreign funds special report requirement or a student pronoun special report requirement. Subsequently, Walters never addressed the Union bomb threat situation.

Battle over foreign funding and preferred pronouns

Schools will now have to submit special reports outlining funding from foreign entities directly or funneled through a nonprofit. The move reflects Walters’ recent allegations that Tulsa Public Schools’ Booker T. Washington is taking money from the Chinese government for its Confucius Classroom program for a Chinese language class.

The program is managed by the Chinese International Education Foundation, a non-government organization sponsored by the Chinese government’s ministry of education.

TPS officials deny the allegations, saying the money received for the program is from the International Leadership of Texas.

Schools will also have to submit special reports detailing policies, procedures and informal district guidance related to recognizing students’ preferred gender pronouns.

Walters said teachers have been put in the middle of “this war that’s going on in our classrooms,” and they are “having to navigate the woke Olympics.”

“Some have struggled with the issue around gender and are confused by a common sense approach that the country has accepted for years — that there’s two genders, there’s not gender fluidity, that you have to attend the restroom according to your gender, you use pronouns in accordance with your gender,” Walters said. “We have seen this push to confuse and indoctrinate kids by doing this pronoun switching.”

The State Board of Education discusses possible action for Tulsa Public Schools' accreditation status.
Beth Wallis
StateImpact Oklahoma
The State Board of Education discusses possible action for Tulsa Public Schools' accreditation status.

Democratic officials react

Tulsa mayoral candidate and Democratic representative Monroe Nichols released a statement on the approval of TPS’ accreditation, saying he appreciates the decision to “preserve the integrity of local control.”

“For the sake of the 40,000 students in Tulsa Public Schools, the time has come to set aside political agendas,” Nichols wrote. “Let’s come together and work towards enhancing educational outcomes for every child in Tulsa. Everyone has a role to play in ensuring that our children are given the best opportunity to succeed, and I am excited to see what Tulsa can do.”

Other House Democratic leaders also applauded the decision.

“I was pleased to hear so many board members want to dig into the details right there in the meeting,” Tulsa Rep. Melissa Provenzano said in a statement. “I know that when [board members] show up to help [tutor students] as they offered to do, they’ll find that most recommendations made today have already been implemented, in many cases, years ago.”

Rep. Jacob Rosecrants supported TPS’ accreditation decision, but not Walters’ take on it.

“I’m very concerned with the tone,” Rosecrants said in a statement. “Local control is paramount to me and my constituents, especially as it regards educating our children. Superintendent Ryan Walters and the State School Board should be offering to help the district, not dictating to them. This is yet another example of government overreach, which has become a common feature of the folks elected to lead our state.”

StateImpact Oklahoma is a partnership of Oklahoma’s public radio stations which relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online.

Beth reports on education topics for StateImpact Oklahoma.
StateImpact Oklahoma reports on education, health, environment, and the intersection of government and everyday Oklahomans. It's a reporting project and collaboration of KGOU, KOSU, KWGS and KCCU, with broadcasts heard on NPR Member stations.
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