The Oklahoma State Board of Education is expected to vote Thursday on whether to lower Tulsa Public Schools’ accreditation status. The board could also go a step further and take control of the school district.

State Superintendent Ryan Walters has been at odds with Tulsa school leaders even before he was elected in November. Walters has claimed Tulsa Public Schools is failing students, citing low reading scores from state report cards. He has also criticized Tulsa schools for “financial mismanagement, referring to a former employee accused of embezzling as much as $95,000, according to the district’s calculation. Walters has said as much as $1 million was embezzled, though district officials have pushed back on that claim.

Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist is expected to step down by September as the district tries to stave off a state takeover. The Tulsa school board is set to vote on a separation agreement with Gist during an emergency meeting on Wednesday. 

“Making the decision to leave Team Tulsa is the hardest thing I have ever done,” Gist said in an email. “It has been a dream come true to serve and lead this team in the schools where I grew up, the schools that shaped me into an educator, a leader, a human being. I’m proud of what we’ve done here, together, in the hometown that I love.”

Walters said in a statement that he was “pleased to see” Gist leave Tulsa Public Schools.

“I’ve been crystal clear that TPS needs a dramatic change in leadership,” he 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 this is a step in the right direction.”

The Tulsa World reported that TPS’ board is set to vote on the appointment of Dr. Ebony Johnson, a McClain High School graduate who became a teacher and later served in public school administration, as Gist’s successor.

State Superintendent Ryan Walters said last week following a press conference that he would be “moving fast” at potentially downgrading Tulsa Public Schools’ accreditation at a board meeting set for July 27, 2023. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Johnson “is a lifelong Tulsan, a stellar educator, a strong leader, and a remarkable human being,” Gist said in her letter. “With the leadership of Dr. Johnson, our team will keep the work of our plan on track and will reach even higher.”

Walters has threatened a state takeover of the school district, saying “all options are on the table” when it comes to the district, a plan local officials have argued against and appears to lack support from Gov. Kevin Stitt.

“I don’t know what a takeover is,” Stitt told the Tulsa World. “I believe in local control. I think the local board needs to address that.”

Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum said earlier this month that Tulsa does not “want” or “need” a takeover of the city’s school district. Bynum wrote a letter Aug. 18 to the state board of education, saying he had met with both Walters and district leadership, and wanted to “unequivocally” state that a takeover of the school system would “be an affront to the democratic principles of self government upon which our country was founded.” 

Walters said at a press conference earlier this month that Tulsa Schools needs to shore up its financial reporting, boost reading proficiency scores and raise its grade on the state’s education report card.

The governor’s office previously targeted Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist and the district for its decision to keep classes remote during the coronavirus pandemic, as Stitt was urging Oklahoma’s public schools to open while the virus was still sweeping across the country.

Gist called Stitt a “bully,” and Tulsa schools stayed closed longer than surrounding districts like Broken Arrow and Bixby. The school system eventually opened for in-person learning for the 2021-2022 school year, though Gist and Stitt still traded barbs over in-school mask mandates. 

The Tulsa Public Schools Board of Education has an special meeting planned for Wednesday night, a little more than 12 hours before the state board meeting set for Thursday morning. 

Celebrating his victory as State Superintendent on election night in  November, Walters told supporters that “Oklahoma won’t go woke.”  

He’s used his office to publicly accuse some teachers of trying to politically indoctrinate students. 

On Tuesday, Walters retweeted a tweet that included an edited video from the far-right Twitter account Libs of TikTok that often targets teachers it believes are “woke.” The video focused on an elementary school librarian who works at Union Public Schools in Tulsa.

The librarian posted a video and wrote she was pushing a “radical liberal agenda,” which she stated was “teaching kids to love books and be kind.”

“Democrats say it doesn’t exist,” Walters tweeted. “The liberal media denies the issue. Even some Republicans hide from it. Woke ideology is real and I am here to stop it.”

Union’s Ellen Ochoa Elementary was locked down for a time on Tuesday following a bomb threat school officials said was related to the video Walters retweeted. 

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