Tulsa Public Schools, the state’s largest district, staved off a state takeover or loss of accreditation. 

The district’s decision to part ways with Superintendent Deborah Gist this week helped persuade the state Board of Education, led by Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters, to accredit Tulsa schools Thursday, after delaying the decision in July. 

By unanimous vote, the state board accredited Tulsa Public Schools with deficiencies, an improvement in status compared to last year, when it was accredited with warning. 

On Wednesday, the Tulsa school board approved a mutual separation agreement with Gist, who will leave the district Sept. 15 after eight years, and named Chief Learning Officer Ebony Johnson interim superintendent. 

Walters has been laser-focused on Gist’s leadership, a rift that goes back to her handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I was crystal clear from day one: Deb Gist had to go,” Walters said. 

Walters also wants to see the district make rapid improvements in academics, particularly reading scores, and move some of its low-performing schools off the state’s F-list. Progress must be made in the next three to four months, he said. 

Walters’ public criticism drew many concerned Tulsans to Oklahoma City for the meeting Thursday. One parent, Ashley Daly, said it was cruel of Walters to suggest a state takeover, causing stress and uncertainty in the community timed to back-to-school. 

For two hours, state board members discussed their concerns with the three Tulsa school board members in attendance, Stacey Woolley, Jennettie Marshall, and E’Lena Ashley. 

Much of the discussion Thursday was related to Tulsa’s academic scores, but the accreditation deficiencies are related to reporting and finances. The department also raised concerns about a former employee’s embezzlement, which is being investigated by the FBI. 

As part of its vote to accredit, the state board required Tulsa schools to provide professional development in the science of reading, a corrective action plan for all F schools, and improved internal controls to detect and prevent embezzlement, plus monthly updates to the state board. 
At the July board meeting, Walters’ main concern was Tulsa Public Schools’ report on funding spent on diversity, equity and inclusion programs, but that wasn’t mentioned at Thursday’s public meeting. The district did not receive any additional complaints under House Bill 1775, a law banning teaching certain concepts on race and gender, which is why the district’s accreditation was downgraded in 2022.

Jennifer Palmer has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2016 and covers education. Contact her at (405) 761-0093 or jpalmer@oklahomawatch.org. Follow her on Twitter @jpalmerOKC.

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