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Top Oklahoma school official warns ‘do not test me’ after forcing out Tulsa superintendent

Citing lagging academic achievement, Oklahoma Superintendent Ryan Walters threatened a state takeover of Tulsa Public Schools. He’s keeping that option on the table.
Ryan Walters, Oklahoma's school superintendent,
Ryan Walters, Oklahoma's school superintendent, said Tulsa's public schools have been "heading in the wrong direction."Christopher Creese for NBC News

Deborah Gist’s surprise announcement this week that she was resigning as superintendent of Tulsa Public Schools appeared to ward off a threat by Oklahoma’s top education official to take over the district — at least temporarily.

At an Oklahoma Board of Education meeting Thursday, Ryan Walters, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, stopped short of following through on his previous suggestions that the district should lose its accreditation — effectively shutting it down — or that the state should take control. 

Instead, the board, which Walters chairs, voted to require more reports and plans from the Tulsa district, the state’s largest, and to revisit its accreditation in four months.

“I would advise Tulsa Public Schools and their leadership: Do not test me,” Walters said. “I’m willing to do whatever it takes for these kids.”

Walters, a firebrand Republican official who has leaned heavily into the culture wars in his seven months in office, had spent weeks attacking Gist and arguing that the district she leads, where a majority of students are Black and Latino and more than three-quarters are economically disadvantaged, was “uniquely bad.” He pilloried the district for low academic achievement scores and accused it of financial mismanagement. One of his key demands was that it get rid of Gist.

On Tuesday evening, Gist announced that she would step down next month “with a broken heart” in hope of averting Walters’ threatened takeover. 

Tulsa Superintendent Deborah Gist
Tulsa Superintendent Deborah Gist resigned to keep the state from taking over the district.Daniel Shular / Tulsa World via AP

In an interview after Thursday’s vote, Gist said that she was relieved the district’s accreditation was left intact but that she’s concerned that Walters’ threat of drastic action is still looming.

“This is about Ryan Walters using Tulsa and me as a political football and furthering his personal and political agenda,” she said. 

The Board of Education voted to maintain Tulsa Public Schools’ current accreditation status “with deficiencies,” which means the district has specific problems it needs to fix.  The board also voted to require the district to create a professional development plan to train teachers in the science of reading, along with a corrective action plan for failing schools. And the district will have to provide monthly in-person reports to the state board for the next four months. 

Gist, who grew up in Tulsa, was the education commissioner in Rhode Island — the same type of role Walters holds in Oklahoma — before she returned to her hometown. She’d been an education reform advocate who enacted more aggressive evaluations of teachers, but after she went to Tulsa Public Schools in 2015, she aligned herself more with teachers unions and pushed for better funding and pay.

She told NBC News in a phone interview last week that she took the job in Tulsa because it’s the district that made her want to become an educator. She called it a “blessing” and a “dream job.” 

Supporters of Tulsa Public Schools  in Oklahoma City on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023.
Supporters of Tulsa Public Schools turned out in Oklahoma City on Thursday.Chris Creese for NBC News

But this week, Gist said she decided to resign because she thought it was the best thing she could do to ensure the local elected school board remained in charge of the district. She also worried Walters could move to strip her of her educator’s license or revoke the district’s accreditation without due process.

“This district is my home,” Gist said in an interview after the state board’s vote. “These are the schools that raised me, that made me — not just as an educator, but the person I am today. And nothing matters to me more than serving the students, and unlike Ryan Walters, I’m not willing to put my own interest above the needs of the children of Tulsa.”

Gist had only one meeting with Walters, she said, and it was at her request this month. She said that it lasted about 30 minutes, mostly focused on financial issues, and that Walters didn’t raise the issue of student achievement. 

Supporters of Tulsa Public Schools speak in Oklahoma City on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023.
Tulsa school board President Stacey Woolley defended the district Thursday in Oklahoma City.Chris Creese for NBC News

An Oklahoma Education Department spokesman said Gist controlled whether the pair met and accused her of being “openly hostile.” 

“With her departure, we are optimistic that this is a step in the right direction,” said the spokesman, Dan Isett.

At Thursday’s Board of Education meeting in Oklahoma City, Jennettie Marshall, a Tulsa school board member, implored the state to “give us grace” and allow the district to work with its new interim superintendent to launch initiatives to improve academic achievement. ​​According to 2022 state report cards, just 13% of students in the Tulsa district meet grade-level standards on the state test, compared to the statewide average of 28%. 

After the vote, some of those who spoke during the public comment period said they were glad the state board was “stepping up and delivering consequences,” but many defended Gist and criticized Walters’ approach. 

“I watched a lifelong Tulsan and a lifelong educator fall on her sword to save our district from what would surely be a bungled and disastrous takeover by someone who shows zero interest in our kids other than as a pawn for his political career,” said Ryan Daly, a father from Tulsa. “That is strong leadership,” he added, addressing Walters directly. “You are not a strong leader.”

Walters did not respond in the moment, but Isett later emailed that Walters “did exactly what he said he was going to do — stand up for Tulsa kids.” 

Supporters of school superintendent Ryan Walters
Supporters of Oklahoma's top education official, Ryan Walters, gathered outside a State Board of Education meeting Thursday in Oklahoma City.Chris Creese for NBC News

Carmon Drummond, a Tulsa parent who described herself as a conservative Republican, also directed her remarks at Walters. 

“You need to stop talking, and you need to start listening,” she said. “If you want to come to Tulsa and you want to have town meetings with parents and you want to learn about the troubles and challenges that TPS has, I’m sure lots of people will show up and talk about it. There are problems at TPS, but a state takeover violates the basic constitutional principle of our government, which is local control.”

Back in Tulsa, high school students staged a walkout Thursday in support of the district. 

School superintendent Ryan Walters in Oklahoma City on Aug. 24, 2023.
State Superintendent Ryan Walters at the State Board of Education meeting in Oklahoma City on Thursday.Chris Creese for NBC News

Ahead of the Board of Education meeting, Janice Danforth, who leads the Tulsa chapter of Moms for Liberty, a conservative activist group, said she was glad Walters was holding Gist accountable for a “lack of leadership.”

“We’re at a place in time where boldness matters,” said Danforth, who added that she has had multiple conversations with Walters about concerns over school library books. “And he’s being bold, and he’s fighting for what he believes is right. And I stand by him on that, because I feel the same.”

Walters, who has also pushed to restrict library books with sexual references and called for hanging the Ten Commandments in public schools, put forward two new requirements at Thursday’s board meeting that would apply to all districts in the state.

The board voted to require districts to report any programming funded, directly or indirectly, by a foreign government and to provide the state with all informal guidance it has given to staff members about LGBTQ-related issues.