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School board approves accreditation of Tulsa Public Schools after superintendent’s resignation

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(TULAS, Okla.) — The Oklahoma state school board voted unanimously on Thursday to upgrade the status of Tulsa Public Schools (TPS) to “accredited with deficiencies” amid fears the largest school district in the state – with more than 33,000 students – could have lost its accreditation status during the second week of the 2023-2024 school year.

The vote to upgrade the school district’s accreditation status comes after Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist announced her resignation on Tuesday amid a battle with Republican officials in the state, including Gov. Kevin Stitt and Oklahoma State Superintendent Ryan Walters.

“Let this be the beginning of the time clock. It starts right now. Tulsa has been given an opportunity to correct themselves and to be very clear, I will not let this district fail,” Walters said during the meeting on Thursday. “If they do not fix these problems, I will. The clock has started. There will be accountability. This district will not be allowed to fail.”

Walters welcomed Gist’s resignation on Thursday and called for new leadership.

ABC News has reached out to Tulsa Public Schools for comment.

Gist said in a statement on Tuesday that her departure “offers the best chance for control of our schools to remain where they belong, in Tulsa with our elected Board of Education and aligned with the values of our community.”

Gist is set to depart her role as TPS superintendent on Sept. 15 as Ebony Johnson serves as interim superintendent.

Walters previously accused TPS of mismanaging funds and criticized leadership for poor performance on reading and math scores, claiming that more money is spent on administration than in the classroom.

He called for monthly reviews of TPS performance on reading and math, and plans to address alleged financial mismanagement at TPS. ABC News reached out to Walters for further comment.

Before her resignation Gist, a former commissioner of education in Rhode Island, pushed back against Walters’ criticism and said the school board approved a strategic plan that would hold the district “accountable for our educational outcomes,” according to ABC affiliate in Tulsa, KTUL.

The school was demoted to “accreditation with warning” by the school board in July 2022 for allegedly violating HB 1775, an Oklahoma law signed in May 2021 by Stitt that bans the teaching of critical race theory in the state, according to KTUL.

According to the Oklahoma Department of Education (ODE), there are five possible rankings of school districts in the state in the order that follows: accredited with no deficiencies, accredited with deficiencies, accredited with warning, accredited with probation and non-accredited – which means the district would no longer be recognized by the state Board of Education and would lose its funding. If a district loses accreditation students would have to enroll in schools outside the district.

According to the Public School Review (PSR), which evaluates public schools across the country based on a variety of criteria including performance and diversity, the Tulsa Public School District is ranked #505 out of 537 school districts in Oklahoma based on the combined math and reading proficiency testing data for the 2020-2021 school year.

Per PSR, the district also ranks in the top 1% for size and diversity, with 77 schools collectively made up of 78% students of color, including 38% Hispanic, 22% Black and 5% Native American.

In her letter of resignation, Gist accused Walters of singling out TPS and targeting the diverse school district.

“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. So I’m stepping away,” she said.

“Tulsa is a community on the reservations of the Cherokee, Muscogee and Osage Nations, and is home to descendants of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Our collective history of unrepaired harms is shameful, and depriving Tulsans of their collective voice over their schools would only add insult to injury,” she added.

Meanwhile, Walters welcomed Gist’s resignation and said in a statement obtained by ABC News that TPS “needs a dramatic change in leadership.”

“From day one, I called for the removal of Gist in order to get the district on a path to success. I am optimistic that this is a step in the right direction, that TPS and the community takes their situation seriously,” he said. “Financial transparency and academic outcomes must come next.”

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