State Superintendent Ryan Walters speaks during a State Board of Education meeting on Aug. 24, 2023, in Oklahoma City. (Photo by Brent Fuchs/For Oklahoma Voice)
OKLAHOMA CITY — After weeks of uncertainty over the survival of their local school district, some Tulsans say they’re still frustrated with state officials.
The Oklahoma State Board of Education voted unanimously Thursday to accredit Tulsa Public Schools, despite the state superintendent’s threats to potentially dissolve or take over the school district.
But some parents complained the board failed to clearly communicate specific targets that the district must meet to prevent future repercussions, while others accused state Superintendent Ryan Walters of stoking chaos in the school system.
“What is the plan?” Tulsa parent James Morton asked. “TPS has a plan. They’re working it through. Certain people, including Walters, have decided they don’t like that plan. Then give us a new one.”
The accreditation vote allows the district to continue operating independently with its existing administrators and locally elected school board, but storm clouds remain on the horizon.
Tulsa Superintendent Deborah Gist, the focus of much of Walters’ criticism, agreed to resign a week ago in what she said was an effort to maintain local control.
“I am confident that my departure will help to keep our democratically elected leadership and our team in charge of our schools — this week and in the future,” Gist wrote in a letter announcing her departure.
But Walters threatened further consequences if Tulsa schools don’t make significant improvements in three to four months.
“If they don’t fix their problems, I will,” Walters said.
After years of paltry academic results, the time is now for sweeping action, said Sen. Joe Newhouse, R-Tulsa.
Newhouse acknowledged the district faces considerable challenges. More than one-third of Tulsa students are learning English as their second language, and three-quarters of the student population come from economically disadvantaged homes, state data shows.
Despite that, it’s inexcusable that so many struggle to read and write, Newhouse said.
“We want our students to be proficient, and they’re not in TPS,” he said. “At the end of the day, if our students cannot read and write, that is a proven failure, and we need to have new direction.”
Only 13% of Tulsa students scored at grade level in English language arts, and 6% did so in math, 2022 state tests showed.
“What I’m hearing from the community is, ‘Why are we letting this continue?’” Newhouse said. “It’s a lot of pent-up frustration. It’s a powder keg ready to explode.”
An FBI investigation and a state audit of the school district are underway after Tulsa administrators reported questionable expenses from their human resources department last year. An annual district audit found $364,000 in suspicious payments to vendors. Gist said only one employee was responsible for the scandal, accusing the district’s former chief talent and equity officer, Devin Fletcher.
As a condition of its accreditation, the state board required Tulsa to train teachers in the science of reading, develop a corrective action plan to improve failing schools and implement internal controls to prevent embezzlement.
Although the state board called for improved reading outcomes in Tulsa schools, it outlined no test scores nor academic growth targets that it expects the district to meet.
Speaking with reporters after the meeting, Walters said he wants to see “most kids in Tulsa reading on state average” and more Tulsa schools scoring higher than an “F” in state evaluations.
Tulsa parent Carmon Drummond said three months is too short a time to expect this much progress. While speaking with the board in public comment Thursday, Drummond said state officials should be clearer with more concrete expectations.
“We have an unattainable, imaginary goal, but we have the threat that something’s going to come — Ryan Walters is going to take over,” Drummond said.
Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum similarly called on state officials to share specifics.
The district already crafted plans to improve its financial reporting and academic results. In an Aug. 18 letter to the state board, Bynum asked the Oklahoma Department of Education to suggest how the district could modify its strategies to achieve better results.
The mayor welcomed collaboration with the state agency, but he spoke against a takeover.
“The City of Tulsa does not seek this,” Bynum wrote. “We do not want it, and we do not need it.”
The Tulsa Regional Chamber also voiced support for upholding Tulsa’s accreditation.
“Public education is foundational to economic health, so (Thursday’s) decision helps ensure the continued strength of our community,” chamber President Mike Neal said in a statement.
High school students across Tulsa staged walkouts Thursday in protest, and dozens of the district’s supporters traveled to Oklahoma City to attend the state board meeting.
“I want to thank you for voting for Tulsans today,” said LeeAnne Jimenez, vice president of the Tulsa teacher union, said to the board in public comment. “I also want to thank you for uniting Tulsans, because there is fever like there has not been fever before.”
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