The superintendent of Tulsa Public Schools in Oklahoma announced her decision on Tuesday to step down from her role, aiming to prevent a potential takeover of the district. This takeover effort is being led by a state superintendent who is known for expressing strong opinions against what he calls “woke ideology.” He has also accused the district of receiving funds from “Communist China.”
Deborah Gist, the departing superintendent, conveyed her decision in a detailed email to her colleagues within the district. She stated that leaving her position on September 15th would be one of the most challenging choices she has ever made. However, she believed it was the most effective way to safeguard the district’s accreditation status. This action was essential to avoid the closure of schools in the largest district of the state. Gist emphasized the importance of maintaining control over the schools within Tulsa, under the guidance of the locally elected Board of Education.
The decision to step down stemmed from ongoing conflicts between Gist and Oklahoma State Schools Superintendent Ryan Walters. Gist acknowledged in her email that her departure was influenced by these tensions. She mentioned, “It is no secret that our state superintendent has had an unrelenting focus on our district and specifically on me.” Gist believed that her resignation would contribute to preserving the authority of the elected leadership and the district’s team over its schools.
In response, Walters expressed his satisfaction with what he characterized as Gist’s “removal” by the Tulsa board. He had been advocating for Gist’s removal since the beginning, aiming to lead the district towards success. He expressed optimism that this change would be a step in the right direction for Tulsa’s education system. Walters emphasized the importance of financial transparency and academic achievements, placing the welfare of Tulsa’s children as a top priority.
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Walters, formerly leading a nonprofit called Every Oklahoma Kid Counts, had been vocal about the need for intervention in Tulsa. Over the summer, he had been forceful in his critique, comparing Tulsa Public Schools to a bus that had veered off the road, gone into a ditch, and crashed into a tree.
The district, serving a predominantly Black and Hispanic population with around 80 percent being economically disadvantaged, struggled to meet Oklahoma proficiency standards for elementary and middle school grades in 2022, according to state testing.
Just before Gist’s resignation was officially announced, Walters, who openly opposes what he calls the “woke agenda,” shared a TikTok video on Twitter. The video had been manipulated by an alt-right account to depict a librarian promoting the “woke agenda.” Walters stated, “Woke ideology is real and I am here to stop it.” On the same day, the librarian’s school received a bomb threat, which district officials linked to the TikTok incident.
In July, the Oklahoma Board of Education granted Walters’ request to delay a decision on Tulsa’s accreditation. Walters argued that the severity of the district’s issues warranted further review. The state board is scheduled to meet soon to discuss Tulsa’s accreditation status, and it remains uncertain how Gist’s departure might influence this meeting’s outcome.
Gist had been serving Tulsa’s district, which has about 34,000 students and 3,000 teachers, since 2015. Last September, the district board narrowly voted 4-3 to extend her contract until 2026. However, the board is expected to convene to appoint an interim replacement for Gist, namely district administrator Ebony Johnson. This transition marks a significant change in leadership for Tulsa Public Schools.