School & District Management

With a State Takeover on the Table, the Leader of Oklahoma’s Largest District Resigns

By Evie Blad — August 22, 2023 | Updated: August 22, 2023 7 min read
Superintendent Deborah Gist, a woman with long brown hair wearing a black suit, sits at a desk as she speaks into a microphone.
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Updated: This story has been updated to reflect news developments, including the resignation of Superintendent Deborah Gist.

The superintendent of Oklahoma’s largest school district announced she would step down Tuesday in hopes of averting looming plans for the state to take control of the school system.

Tulsa, Okla., Superintendent Deborah Gist informed staff of plans to leave the district, which she has led since 2015, days before the state’s board of education plans to vote Aug. 24 on a plan to pull or downgrade the district’s accreditation. That step could allow state leaders to override local decisions or dissolve the district entirely.

The turn of events follows more than a year of criticism from Ryan Walters, the state’s elected Republican state superintendent, much of it focused on her leadership.

“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,” she wrote in a letter to district employees Tuesday evening. “So I’m stepping away.”

Plans for the potential state control of the Tulsa school system have drawn scrutiny from the community. Students there have held rallies, passed out informational flyers, and even called state board of education members directly to challenge the plan.

They join teachers and parents who have packed recent state and local school board meetings to question the justification for taking such a dramatic step.

A vote to intervene in Tulsa’s schools would come on the heels of a March state takeover by Texas of the Houston district, that state’s largest. Both are being scrutinized not only for the changes proposed to governance and instruction, but also for what critics claim has been an unusually politicized process.

Walters has led the charge to take control of Tulsa schools, repeatedly criticizing the 33,000-student district’s academic performance, fiscal management, and leadership.

“I am optimistic that this is a step in the right direction, that [the district] and the community takes their situation seriously,” Walters said in a statement after Gist announced her departure. “Financial transparency and academic outcomes must come next.”

Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters presides over a special state Board of Education meeting to discuss the U.S. Department of Education's "Proposed Change to its Title IX Regulations on Students' Eligibility for Athletic Teams" on April 12, 2023, in Oklahoma City.

And at an Aug. 7 press conference held at local Republican party headquarters, Walters confirmed that he has spoken with Texas education officials about the Houston takeover and subsequent implementation of a controversial plan that includes requiring teachers at targeted schools to reapply for their jobs, layoffs in the central office, and changes to curriculum.

Walters compared Tulsa schools to a bus that has veered off of the road and “gone into a tree.” He called for Gist’s resignation or removal, and said “all options are on the table” when the Oklahoma State Board of Education meets Thursday to consider the district’s accreditation status.

“We have to see substantial change,” he said. “No action is absolutely not an option here.”

Those speaking out against a possible takeover accuse Walters of attempting to score political points.

“It’s flashy” for conservative leaders to take over a large school system, said Tulsa 7th grade teacher Ana Barros, who has watched her students organize outside of school time to call for the district to maintain its accreditation status. “It’s an easy political win for somebody who is trying to get on the national news, who’s trying to get on the conservative conference circuit.”

Calls to downgrade accreditation

The Oklahoma state board typically reviews districts’ accreditation status in July. This July, board members made an unexpected move to table a decision about Tulsa, despite a recommendation from the state’s accreditation division to continue the district’s current status: “accreditation with warning.” Four of the six board members were appointed by Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt in a January 2023 shakeup.

Accreditors in July cited concerns that individual teachers at three Tulsa schools did not have proper certification, which the district says it has since remedied.

Oklahoma’s school accreditation system has five levels, ranging from “accredited with no deficiencies” at the top level to “no accreditation” at the bottom. The state gains more authority to intervene with each successive downgrade.

The board previously downgraded the district’s accreditation status to its current level—two steps above loss of accreditation—last year after a Tulsa teacher complained that a professional development exercise that included a discussion of implicit racial bias violated a state law that restricts how schools discuss issues like race and sexuality.

At his Aug. 7 press conference, Walters surfaced several other complaints:

  • The district’s reading scores are below the state average. (Supporters of the district note that it is large and diverse, with more low-income students and English learners than many other school systems in the state.)
  • A former district administrator embezzled $340,000 from Tulsa schools last year. Gist contends the district identified the issue, self-reported it, and resolved it, but Walters insists he still has concerns about internal controls.
  • Walters contends that the district spends more on administrative costs than classroom expenses. Opponents of state intervention say that figure comes from a data source that categorizes librarians and school nurses as administrative costs, rather than as student support personnel or instructional supports.
  • Walters criticized a “lack of specificity” in the district’s academic improvement plans.

Separately, Walters has accused the district of violating religious freedom after a school board member said she was discouraged from praying at a graduation ceremony. He has also questioned the origins of a program used by one Chinese language teacher in a district high school.

Gist has said the state should work with Tulsa leaders to improve outcomes for students, characterizing Walters’ calls for improvement as vague and disingenuous.

“What we are seeing is a process that is being politicized with a very specific personal agenda,” she said at a July 27 news conference.

‘The hardest thing I have ever done’

Gist attended Tulsa schools as a student. Before returning as superintendent, she served as a teacher in Texas, worked as a policy analyst in the U.S. Department of Education and served as the state schools chief for the District of Columbia and Rhode Island.

In her email to district employees, Gist called her decision to step down “the hardest thing I have ever done.”

“This surely seems like an unexpected time for me to say this, but serving as a leader in our schools is the most fulfilling professional experience of my life—or at least, the only thing that rivals the joy of teaching,” she wrote. “To state the painfully obvious, there is a lot that makes the job tough — tougher than it even should be.”

Gist’s departure will be finalized in a special school board meeting Wednesday, she said. She plans to formally leave the district Sept. 15.

Students speak up

Tulsa students started the school year Aug. 17 with their district’s future still uncertain.

“It’s kind of scary that this is how our future is being decided,” said Angel Compean, a Tulsa senior who has helped organize students in support of maintaining the district’s accreditation. He spoke hours before Gist announced her decision.

Compean said he values his district and doesn’t want the state to intervene. He recalled a 3rd grade teacher who helped him gain confidence in math, sitting beside him and working through problems one on one until concepts clicked.

He is one of 20 students as young as 11 who spoke at an Aug. 19 rally in support of the district. In the front row sat four empty chairs—one for each Stitt-appointed state board member they invited who chose not to attend.

Lance Brightmire, a recent Tulsa graduate, joined with student activists as he waits to start school at Brown University in the coming weeks. He’s been part of phone trees to call state officials, spoken to media, and attended rallies.

Brightmire said the classroom discussions at his high school helped challenge his thinking and deepen his engagement at school.

“It’s that mix of academic liberty and the culture of thought that’s at risk,” in a state takeover, he said. “That kind of serves as a symbol of the larger risk in the whole district.”

Barros, the 7th grade teacher, said state intervention in the district will further fuel fears among teachers that they will be confronted over classroom discussions over race, current events, or moments in history like the 1921 Tulsa race massacre.

“If the most powerful person in our district is barely holding onto her job,” she said of Gist the day before the superintendent announced plans to step down, “what about the rest of us who are trying to support our kids?”

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