As the Oklahoma board of education voted to retain local control of Tulsa schools Thursday, the district’s school board president called on State Superintendent Ryan Walters to tone down his sharp and often personal rhetoric, saying it put students and educators in danger.
The decision came two days after Tulsa Superintendent Deborah Gist, who had been a focus of Walters’ criticism, announced plans to leave the district in hopes it would avert a threatened a state takeover of Oklahoma’s largest district.
The state board voted unanimously on Thursday to maintain the school system’s accreditation “with deficiencies,” and require monthly, in-person status reports from Tulsa school officials on efforts to improve the district’s lowest performing schools, raise rates of student reading proficiency, and adopt new fiscal policies.
In supporting the decision, Walters cited Gist’s departure.
“They now have a leader who ran the district into the ground out of the way,” Walters said. “They have an opportunity to change directions, and I want to see that. I want to be crystal clear: If that does not happen, I leave every option on the table.”
If the district does not sufficiently improve within three or four months, further action may be taken, Walters warned.
He did not set specific benchmarks for improvement or detail what consequences the district may face for insufficient progress.
“I would advise Tulsa Public Schools and their leadership: Do not test me,” he said.
Bomb threats follow sharp rhetoric
As the meeting took place, an elementary school in the Union School District, a separate district that is also located in Tulsa, faced its third bomb threat of the week, the Tulsa World reported.
Those threats came after Walters shared a post on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter, targeting a librarian at that elementary school. The employee had shared a satirical video on TikTok mocking the idea that she is spreading a “woke agenda” because she wants to teach kids to “love books and be kind.” Walters shared the video with the message “Woke ideology is real and I am here to stop it.”
Walters had made promises that he would root out critical race theory, “radical gender ideology,” and liberal political influence in schools as part of his campaign last year for the elected position, and those themes have since become something of a personal brand. He has sharply criticized Tulsa schools’ approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion, highlighting claims by a school board member who said she was discouraged from praying at graduation.
Numerous public commenters at the Thursday meeting referenced the bomb threats made this week. And the Tulsa school board’s leadership took the unusual step of asking Walters to tone down his discourse.
“I would make a plea to call off the attacks,” Tulsa School Board President Stacey Woolley told Walters and the state board Thursday. “We can’t risk disruption. We can’t risk more threats. And we certainly can’t do anything that would cause harm to our students and our teachers.”
While Tulsa board members accept the responsibility to “accelerate change,” Woolley said, “the antics and rhetoric must stop.”
Two other Tulsa board members present at the meeting said they were hopeful that the 33,000-student district’s newly appointed interim superintendent, Chief Learning Officer Ebony Johnson, would bring needed change to address the state board’s concerns.
Discussions about Tulsa schools’ accreditation status have generated an emotional response from some students, parents, and teachers, who have packed meetings, organized rallies, and spoken to the media in hopes of preserving local control.
As the state board met Thursday, students at several Tulsa schools walked out in support of their district.
Concerns about academics, finances
Oklahoma 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.
In the time since, Walters has raised additional concerns:
- The district’s reading scores fall 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.
Oklahoma’s school accreditation system has five levels, ranging from “accredited with no deficiencies” at the top to “no accreditation” at the bottom. The board’s vote put the Tulsa district at the second highest level, allowing it to maintain state funding and local control. Four of the six state board members were appointed by Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt in a January 2023 shakeup.
The board previously downgraded the district’s accreditation status 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.
Walters has continued sharp criticism since. In addition to concerns about low-performing schools, he’s flagged issues like the origins of a program used by one Chinese language teacher in a district high school. At Thursday’s meeting, Walters suggested the program may amount to “indoctrination from a foreign government.”
Public reacts to board’s decision
Woolley, the Tulsa School Board president, said she takes school improvement and literacy concerns seriously, but she urged the state board to work with the district toward solutions.
During public comment, some speakers praised Walters’ actions, citing concerns about liberal political influence in public schools and the long-term effects of poor academic performance.
Others said the specter of a state takeover would still loom over the district until the board sets clear, measurable goals that detail acceptable levels of progress.
Some criticized Walters’ leadership.
“I watched a lifelong Tulsan and a lifelong educator fall on her sword to stop what would surely be a bungled takeover, … " Tulsan Ryan Daly said of Gist at the hearing. “That is strong leadership. You are not a strong leader.”