Wednesday, August 23rd 2023, 10:24 pm
The Tulsa School Board has approved Dr. Deborah Gist’s resignation as superintendent.
This comes the day before the State Board of Education will decide on the district's accreditation.
The board left for an executive session to discuss the resignation around 5:34 p.m. on Wednesday, and rejoined the public meeting at 6:55 p.m. with their decision.
The room filled with emotion from both the audience as well as board members.
President Stacey Woolley said the board will work to improve test scores and graduation rates for students going forward.
Some board members said they wished it would have never come to this, while others said the need for a change in leadership was long overdo. They all said they appreciate the support shown by people in Tulsa.
"There are people in this audience right now – not just our teachers, not just our parents, not just our people who have been here for 30 years, who are ready to fall down from exhaustion, but they are going to step back up tomorrow to make sure our kids have what they need and I just want to thank you all so very much," Woolley said.
The board also decided to appoint the current district Chief Learning Officer, Dr. Ebony Johnson, as interim superintendent.
Dr. Johnson has been with Tulsa Public Schools for 18 years. She currently serves as the district’s Chief Learning Officer.
She joined the district in 2005. In that time, she has served as a teacher, teach coach, dean, assistant principal, and principal.
Dr. Johnson is a lifelong Tulsan. She graduated from McLain and earned her degrees from Northeastern State University and the University of Oklahoma.
In her letter, Gist calls Johnson a stellar educator, strong leader, and remarkable human being.
"I am enthusiastic about the board’s plan to act upon the appointment of our colleague as interim superintendent. As you know, Dr. Johnson is a lifelong Tulsan, a stellar educator, a strong leader, and a remarkable human being. With the leadership of Dr. Johnson, our team will keep the work of our plan on track and will reach even higher," Dr. Gist said.
Dr. Johnson will begin September 16, a day after Dr. Gist plans to step down.
Gist released a letter to parents and teachers on Tuesday, explaining why she planned to resign.
She said she's confident her departure will help keep the state from removing the district's accreditation.
Ashley Blade-Martin is a TPS parent. Ashley said all of this makes her nervous for her kids and their education.
“(I'm) extremely anxious, I have to be honest, like I don’t know that he will believe or the state board will believe that Dr. Gist resigning is enough," Ashley said.
The strained relationship between Tulsa Public Schools and state leaders doesn't have a clear origin point, but tensions rose in 2021 when Governor Kevin Stitt criticized the district for its response to COVID-19 in his State of the State Address that February.
"It's now been 325 days since Tulsa students in 4th through 12th have been allowed to be in their classrooms," said Stitt.
Superintendent Gist took those statements as an attack on TPS, calling the Governor a bully on social media. A year later, issues continued when school board members asked Governor Stitt to audit the district "and the potential mishandling of public funds."
The Governor also said the district might have violated House Bill 1775, which prohibits schools from teaching Critical Race Theory.
Shortly after that, the state school board voted to lower TPS's accreditation to Accreditation with Warning, despite objections from Dr. Gist.
"When House Bill 1775 was signed into law, we reviewed our curriculum for compliance and determined with confidence that we are," said Gist.
Their accreditation was brought up again this July, during a rally held by State Superintendent Ryan Walters, defending a TPS school board member's right to pray at graduation.
"What you see is a continued assault against religious beliefs in our public school system," said Walters.
At the end of that meeting, Walters suggested TPS's accreditation will be looked at again. Since that time, Walters has stepped up his calls for Gist to resign.
She eventually announced her resignation Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 22, just two days before the state makes its decision on the district's accreditation. Gist said stepping down is the hardest thing she's ever done.
The State Board of Education meeting on TPS's accreditation is Thursday, Aug. 24, at 9:30 in the morning.
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