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Tulsa superintendent steps down amid battle with Oklahoma officials

In a major battle between Tulsa Public Schools and the state, which involved a possible takeover, Tulsa's longtime superintendent has stepped down.
Tulsa superintendent steps down amid battle with Oklahoma officials
Posted at 4:34 AM, Aug 23, 2023

Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist is stepping down. 

"I am departing because I believe that doing so offers the best chance for control of our schools to remain where they belong: in Tulsa with our elected Board of Education and aligned with the values of our community," she wrote in her letter.

Her decision comes after months of tension between Gist and State Superintendent Ryan Walters over the district. The district's accreditation is being voted on in Oklahoma City on Thursday. 

"It is no secret that our state superintendent has had an unrelenting focus on our district and specifically on me, and 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. So I’m stepping away," she added. 

Walters released a statement after Gist's announcement, saying, "I’ve been crystal clear that Tulsa Public Schools needs a dramatic change in leadership, and I am pleased to see the board taking this seriously with the removal of Deborah Gist."

Walters said, "From day one, I called for the removal of Gist in order to get the district on a path to success. I am optimistic that this is a step in the right direction, that TPS and the community takes their situation seriously. Financial transparency and academic outcomes must come next. I will always put Tulsa kids first."

Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum thanked Gist for her service, writing in a statement: "I am incredibly grateful for the service of my friend, Dr. Deborah Gist, to our community. Throughout her time as Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent, Dr. Gist took on some of the greatest challenges facing Tulsa students — from substandard teacher pay that makes it difficult for us to compete with other states, to student safety amidst the greatest public health crisis in our city’s history. She was always willing to speak truth to power on behalf of the children she has dedicated her life to serving. On their behalf, and on behalf of our city, I want to thank Dr. Gist for all she has done for Tulsa."

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Gist became superintendent of Tulsa Public Schools in 2015. The district's website said, "During Superintendent Gist’s tenure, the district has seen sustained increases in high school graduation rates, novice teacher retention, employee engagement, and the percentage of students meeting projected reading and math growth."

Walters is a Republican who took office in January when he began raising a list of issues against schools in Tulsa. Tulsa Public Schools has faced criticism over low test scores and mismanagement of money. In the months after he took office, Walters has questioned Gist's performance in her role and threatened to commence a state takeover of the school district, which had involved possibly appointing a new superintendent at one point. 

Mike Neal, president of the Tulsa Regional Chamber, said in a statement, "We have been fortunate to have a native Tulsan as superintendent for nearly eight years. Dr. Gist cares deeply about our community, and she is extremely committed to helping ensure a bright future for Tulsa’s students. She has long been a strong partner with the Tulsa Regional Chamber, and we were proud to collaborate with her and her administration on projects such as the Tulsa Public Schools bond renewal in 2021, and the Tulsa’s NextGEN Talent externship initiative. All of us at the Chamber wish Dr. Gist the very best in her future endeavors. We commit to working with her successor to ensure a continued focus on students and their academic success. Public schools are the backbone of the northeast Oklahoma economy. We at the Chamber will continue leading the business community’s collaboration with TPS and other area school districts to ensure that employers have access to skilled talent, and that students are prepared for success in college and career. The Tulsa Regional Chamber has always been very supportive of Tulsa Public Schools, and that will not change."

Ebony Johnson is expected to take on the role of interim Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent.

Johnson is the current senior director of student engagement. 

According to her LinkedIn page, she has been a TPS employee for the past 24 years serving as a teacher, dean, assistant principal, and principal before moving into her current role. 

At one point after taking office, Walters threatened to possibly revoke accreditation, which could lead to school closures in a district serving around 34,000 students with a demographic makeup of around 80% of students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and who are majority Black and Hispanic. 

This story was originally published by Scripps News Tulsa, with additional reporting from Scripps National News. 

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