"This is about Ryan Walters using Tulsa and me as a political football and furthering his personal and political agenda," said outgoing Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist.
Warning that Oklahoma's top school official has shown in his seven months in office that he is willing to use the state's schools and young students to advance his personal and political priorities, Tulsa's outgoing school superintendent said the right-wing state official could stage a school takeover like the one that took place earlier this year in Houston, Texas.
Deborah Gist resigned as Tulsa Public Schools (TPS) superintendent on Tuesday in hope that the Oklahoma superintendent of public instruction, Ryan Walters, would abandon his threat to take control of the district.
The Oklahoma Board of Education on Thursday evening voted to allow TPS to keep its accreditation "with deficiencies" that it was ordered to fix and to work with a new interim school superintendent to maintain control of the district, but at the meeting, Walters warned school officials, "Do not test me."
Gist expressed concern to NBC News that the district has been offered only a temporary reprieve from Walters' ongoing attacks on the school district, where more than three-quarters of students are economically disadvantaged and a majority are Black and Latino.
"This is about Ryan Walters using Tulsa and me as a political football and furthering his personal and political agenda," Gist told the outlet.
Walters has been focused on Tulsa, where just 13% of students met grade-level standards in 2022, since he took the state's top education position earlier this year, but at Thursday's meeting of the Board of Education, which he chairs, he made clear that his priorities lie not only in helping children who are struggling in school.
The superintendent railed against "gender fluidity" and called on schools to report their policies related to LGBTQ+ issues to the state to ensure they are not "indoctrinating" students.
He also accused the district of "funding some programs through the Chinese Communist government"—an allegation that stemmed, journalist David Heath said, from one Chinese-language teacher's attendance at an off-site program that was partially funded by China.
Walters has also previously called to restrict students' access to books with "sexual references" and to display the Ten Commandments in public schools.
Ryan Daly, the father of Tulsa Public School students, said at Thursday's meeting that Gist had been forced out "to save our district from what would surely be a bungled and disastrous takeover by someone who shows zero interest in our kids other than as a pawn for his political career."
Gist told NBC, "Unlike Ryan Walters, I'm not willing to put my own interest above the needs of the children of Tulsa."
By retaining its accreditation "with deficiencies," TPS was ordered to implement a professional development plan and a corrective plan for schools that have been graded "F" by the state, and to provide the board with monthly updates for the next four months.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said Walters' threatened takeover was part of an "anti-public school" agenda similar to the "extremist attack on local control" that took place in Houston earlier this year.
As Common Dreams reported in March, Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's administration took over Houston's school district despite recent improvements in schools' performances. State-appointed managers can now control the district budget, curriculum and library book policies, collaborations with charter school networks, and other decisions.
Ahead of the school board meeting in Oklahoma on Thursday, Tulsa students staged a walkout to stand with the district and with Gist, who during her tenure has aligned with teachers' unions and called for more school funding and higher pay.
The Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), which represents teachers across the state, called the meeting "unnecessarily chaotic" and expressed solidarity with the district's teachers and students.
"Rhetoric and demands will not change the lives of students," said the OEA. "Those who do not spend time inside our schools may have a superficial understanding of what it actually means to educate and support a community."