Last month, the Tulsa Public Schools (TPS) Board declared Dr. Deborah Gist the new superintendent of the school system. She’s a Tulsa native who graduated from Memorial High School, a school in the TPS system, but has been working with the Rhode Island Department of Education since 2009.
Board President Ruth Ann Fate told Channel 2 News that Gist is a “courageous innovator” who knows the Tulsa community well and is understanding of teacher needs because she was a teacher herself for eight years.
The TPS Board released a fact sheet on Gist stating that Gist oversaw a 50 percent decrease in African American student dropout rates in Rhode Island.
Before the board voted on Gist, there was a petition making rounds against hiring her, calling Gist a “Janet Barresi clone” (Barresi is Oklahoma’s former state superintendent). A group of educators and concerned citizens protested outside of the Tulsa Public Schools Education Service Center with the slogan “Reboot & Reconsider.”
Dr. Gist was one of two finalists for the position, but her opponent, Millard House II, dropped out of the race. The petition asked that the school board begin its search over again instead of voting on the only candidate left. It received 639 signatures.
On the night of the vote, board members expressed approval for Gist. Patti Ferguson-Palmer, President of the Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association, and about a dozen other teachers walked out of the room in protest before the vote was even taken. Gist was voted in 7–0.
Shawna Keller, TPS Board member, told Channel 2 News that although it was discomforting for her to not vote the way teachers wanted, she felt she ultimately had to do what was best for the children of TPS.
Ferguson-Palmer told the Tulsa World that she and the other teachers walked out because “the voice of the teachers was ignored.”
However, Ferguson-Palmer has since met with Gist individually. She said that she and Gist know they “won’t always be on the same page” but are “committed to keeping the lines of communication open, honest, and respectful.”
The two also talked about low morale and lack of autonomy for teachers. The TPS Board is working on an agreement that would allow Gist to start working with current superintendent Keith Ballard before the beginning of her term on July 1.