Update: This developing story was updated 5 p.m. Wednesday, July 26, 2023.
Facing the possibility of another accreditation downgrade, Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist called the process “completely untransparent” at a press conference on Wednesday. She said she had concerns that the district has been targeted by “inflammatory threats” and “a process that is being politicized for a very specific personal agenda.”
The Oklahoma State Board of Education had been expected to vote Thursday on whether to restore or lower the accreditation status of Tulsa Public Schools after the district was penalized last year for using teacher training materials on racial bias.
But Matt Langston, Chief Policy Advisor for the Oklahoma State Department of Education, told The Frontier on Wednesday that the State Board would not review the district’s accreditation at this month’s meeting after new alleged deficiencies “due to the severity of the allegations and issues.”
Despite the hearing being less than a day away, Gist said the district has not heard from OSDE about this apparent change of plans. She says she still expects the board to vote on Tulsa schools’ accreditation, as they will with all other districts, and plans to attend the meeting to advocate on behalf of the district.
“I only learned that we would not be a part of tomorrow’s annual process on Twitter about 45 minutes ago, so I’m not aware of a change,” said Gist.
Gist said the two violations involved a report to the state Department of Education that was filed late and an audit that found $343,000 in questionable payments to vendors.
State Superintendent Ryan Walters hinted at support of a further downgrade for the Tulsa district at a press conference on Friday, alluding to “many, many violations” over the past year. But he didn’t provide specific examples and left without taking further questions.
The board ruled in July 2022 that Tulsa teacher training materials violated House Bill 1775, a state law that bans some concepts about race and gender from being taught in Oklahoma public schools. The downgrade involved a professional development video titled “Cultural Competence and Racial Bias” that was offered to teachers via a third-party vendor. The board moved to penalize the district even though a state Department of Education attorney found that Tulsa did not directly violate the law.
State Department of Education staff initially recommended demoting Tulsa schools to “accredited with a deficiency.” However, the State Board, composed mostly of members appointed by Governor Kevin Stitt, decided to go a step further and downgraded the school district to “accredited with a warning.”
There are five levels of accreditation:
- Accredited with no deficiencies
- Accredited with deficiencies
- Accredited with a warning
- Accredited with probation
If the board lowers Tulsa schools’ accreditation further, the district would be placed on probation.
This action would not cost the district any funding, but Leslie Berger, a former spokeswoman for OSDE, told The Frontier last year that it could “negatively impact” the district. Families could decide to move their students to other districts or private schools, which would reduce state funding for Tulsa, she said.
When placed on probation in 2021, the Western Heights School district had 90 days to correct the issues or face further penalties, including full loss of accreditation and state funding.
The State Board was also expected to review Mustang Public Schools’ accreditation status at the Thursday meeting. But the State Department of Education has not clarified yet if Mustang would still have its accreditation reviewed at this month’s meeting.
Mustang’s accreditation status was also downgraded last year for violating HB 1775. The downgrade came after the district self-reported a violation related to a voluntary learning exercise where students were asked if they had “ever been called names regarding your race, socioeconomic class, gender, sexual orientation, or physical/learning disability and felt uncomfortable.”
A parent complained that the activity made her child feel “uncomfortable.”
Kirk Wilson, a spokesman for Mustang, told The Frontier on Monday that the district reserved comment until after the meeting.