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State Board urges Tulsa to close low performing schools, alleges “excuses” from school financial team

State Superintendent Ryan Walters speaks with OKSDE legal counsel Bryan Cleveland at the Nov. 30 State Board of Education meeting.
Beth Wallis
/
StateImpact Oklahoma
State Superintendent Ryan Walters speaks with OKSDE legal counsel Bryan Cleveland at the Nov. 30 State Board of Education meeting.

The State Board of Education called for Tulsa Public Schools to identify low-performing school sites to close at Thursday’s State Board of Education meeting.

During TPS’ mandatory monthly status updates to the board, Interim Superintendent Ebony Johnson said school closures are under consideration — a move intended to address State Superintendent Ryan Walters’ demands for action.

“There will be district office and school-level changes in personnel that will take place this school year,” Johnson said. “We are also having conversations regarding — ensuring that we provide the best quality learning experience for our students. And in that conversation, that could lend itself to some school closures.”

Walters has put increasing pressure on TPS to get tangible improvements over the last several months since the resignation of its former superintendent, Deborah Gist.

“We think [Tulsa Public Schools] need to be looking at school closures,” Walters said. “I’m not telling them which schools they need to close, but I am telling them when you look at these numbers of that many ‘F’ schools, you look at the resources that you’re making available, you look at some of them have been on this [low performing] list for years, it absolutely has to be part of the decision-making process.”

In a statement from TPS released after the meeting, TPS spokesperson Luke Chitwood said the State Department of Education asked the district in an earlier conversation to speak to the possibility of school closures and consolidation when giving its presentation at the board meeting.

According to the statement, the district said it is weighing available options and researching the potential impact of closing certain school sites.

“Any possible closure or consolidation of schools is a local decision and requires careful consideration and intentional engagement with our families, community and board,” the statement read. “Ultimately, the Tulsa Public Schools Board of Education considers any recommendation made and decides if any closures, consolidations or changes in school format will be approved and implemented.”

Tulsa Public Schools interim Superintendent Ebony Johnson delivers the district's monthly plan-of-improvement presentation at the Nov. 30 State Board of Education meeting.
Beth Wallis
/
StateImpact Oklahoma
Tulsa Public Schools interim Superintendent Ebony Johnson delivers the district's monthly plan-of-improvement presentation at the Nov. 30 State Board of Education meeting.

At the meeting, State Department legal counsel Bryan Cleveland urged the district to make consolidation moves sooner than later.

“We really need to start moving from consideration to action on all of those things, if that’s going to be successful, if that’s going to happen successfully by next school year, because this is a very large district — obviously a lot of logistics involved and all of that,” Cleveland said.

The board unanimously voted on several more requirements for the district.

By the end of the year, TPS must get a minimum of 50% of its students to score “basic” on state tests or at least increase the number of students scoring basic by 5% from last year’s scores.

According to recently released state report cards, TPS currently has 42% of its students scoring at least “basic” in English Language Arts.

It also required TPS to train all teachers and administrators, including secondary teachers, on the science of reading and is requiring TPS to continue its monthly updates to the board.

TPS must also get at least 12 of 18 schools off the state MRI list, which stands for “more rigorous intervention.

Finance team meeting 

The department also said TPS officials have refused to set a date to meet about the district’s financial operations for nearly two months. But TPS says that’s not the case.

At the meeting, Cleveland read off several expenditures he said aren’t clearly labeled, putting the district’s financial transparency into question. The district’s recent high-profile embezzlement case — which was investigated and reported by the district and involved one employee — has put the issue of district finances to the forefront.

The board voted unanimously to require TPS to meet with department staff about its financial procedures before the end of next week. Cleveland said the agency has gone back and forth with TPS officials trying to schedule the meeting, and TPS has given “different excuses every couple of weeks” and wants to make sure “the excuses are done.”

Walters agreed.

“Since October 9, because of their refusal to set a date and iron that date out, we have not been [in] person. Again, academics — [I’m trying] to separate these two things for the purpose of the meeting — [the] academics team is there all the time. That’s been great. I’ll compliment them on that,” Walters said. “[But the] financial side of this has been a different story — a struggle just to meet with them.”

But, according to an email exchange obtained by StateImpact, TPS had set a meeting date with the department, but then department officials requested a large volume of documentation in preparation for their conversation. To give the district more time to gather the data, the department offered to delay the meeting until after the Thanksgiving holiday — not the district.

TPS says it delivered the data that was asked for and has requested a new date for the meeting but hasn’t heard back from the department.

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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