Ed. Commissioner Gist Set to Leave R.I. to Lead Tulsa Schools

By Andrew Ujifusa — February 04, 2015 2 min read
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Deborah Gist is on her way out as Rhode Island education commissioner after accepting a job offer to become superintendent of Tulsa public schools.

The Tulsa World reported that the Tulsa school board unanimously selected Gist, a city native, to be the district’s next superintendent. Although her contract with Tulsa hasn’t been finalized or approved by the board, Gist is slated to begin a series of public appearances and tours at the 42,000-student district soon. She accepted the post in a phone discussion with board members on Feb. 2. She will take over for Keith Ballard, who is retiring.

“I want to thank the board for entrusting me with this profound privilege and responsibility. I truly believe there is no nobler cause or more challenging calling than educating our children,” Gist said in a statement quoted by the World.

Gist has been Rhode Island’s chief state school officer since 2009, and has overseen several significant changes to K-12 policy during her tenure, including shifts in teacher evaluations and blended learning. She’s also a member of Chiefs for Change, a group of chief state school officers that advocate for school choice and digital education. But her positions faced increasing resistance from teachers’ unions and state legislators as time wore on, and the board declined to pick up an option to extend her contract, which was set to expire later this year.

Tulsa board President Ruth Fate praised Gist as a “courageous innovator” in public education, and other board members praised her passion for children and dedication to improving the teaching profession. But members of the Tulsa teachers’ union slammed the board’s decisionmaking process, and roughly two dozen teachers walked out of the board meeting when board members announced that Gist would become superintendent.

Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association President Patti Ferguson-Palmer told the World that teachers’ concerns were ignored and that board members were falsely “congratulating themselves” for listening to teachers’ concerns. One teacher also called her “a high-stakes-testing pusher and part of the poverty-punishing machine.”

Without Gist as a state superintendent, the number of active top school officers in Chiefs for Change, a group affiliated with the Foundation for Excellence in Education, drops to three.

Photo: Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist addresses lawmakers in Providence, R.I., in 2010. Steven Senne/AP-File

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A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.