Deborah Gist is the Tulsa school board’s unanimous pick for superintendent.
The Tulsa native currently serving as Rhode Island’s education commissioner accepted the board’s job offer via telephone during a special board meeting late Monday.
The selection does not come without controversy. After school board members expressed their support for Gist one by one, the roughly two dozen teachers in attendance all walked out of the meeting room before the vote was taken.
Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association President Patti Ferguson-Palmer said later Monday that she and other teachers walked out “because the voice of the teachers was ignored and we couldn’t stand to listen to the board congratulate themselves for ‘listening’ to our concerns.”
Board President Ruth Ann Fate said after the meeting that she was “very disappointed” in the teacher walk-out.
“I hope they will give her a chance,” Fate said.
Member Lana Turner-Addison said the school district’s relationship with the TCTA has recently soured but that she hopes that Gist will be able to repair that situation. She also noted that one of the things she thinks teachers may be most interested in learning about Gist is her belief in greater “autonomy in school settings, led by teachers.”
Fate said earlier that “Dr. Gist is a courageous innovator in public education. As a graduate of Tulsa schools, Dr. Gist knows our community well. Her strong belief that every child can learn is well matched with the board’s vision for our district.
“Dr. Gist has served at the highest levels of public education policy, but more importantly, she has served on the front lines as a teacher for eight years. She is committed to working with teachers, parents, community leaders and administrators to deliver a quality learning experience for every student without exception.”
In a written press statement, Gist said, “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.
“I have great admiration and respect for the work of Dr. Ballard and his team. I am eager to meet new colleagues and roll up my sleeves to continue the great work of advancing public education in Tulsa.
“My pledge to students, parents and teachers is to give you my absolute best every day by listening, advocating and partnering with you in seizing momentum and overcoming obstacles to improve Tulsa schools.”
For nearly four months, the school board has been searching for a successor to Superintendent Keith Ballard, who is retiring June 30. Another finalist, former TPS Deputy Superintendent Millard House II, withdrew from consideration on Friday.
TPS officials said the school board hopes to negotiate a “transitional agreement” for Gist to begin working with Ballard ahead of her proposed start date of July 1. The terms of both the transitional deal as well as her salary and benefits package will be negotiated over the coming weeks and would require final approval by the school board.
Gist is expected to arrive in Tulsa on Tuesday to begin a brief series of school tours, public appearances and private meetings.
Before the vote, some teachers and parents protested outside the Tulsa Public Schools Education Service Center beginning about 5:30 p.m. This superintendent search differed from past searches in that it did not include any public forums, so educators, parents and other interested district patrons have relied on the media, word of mouth and Internet searches to learn more about the two finalists.
Margaret Tonquest, a Spanish teacher at Rogers Early College Junior High and High School, said she was among the two- to three-dozen people who came to let the board know of their dissatisfaction with the process.
“We’ve been mostly an afterthought, if any thought at all,” Tonquest said. “In the past, teachers have been a part of the interview process and have had a seat at the decision table.”
Emily Wade, a TPS parent and a teacher at Union’s Rosa Parks Elementary School, said she came out to support her child’s current and future teachers.
“The one candidate they have is unacceptable,” Wade said. “There are a lot of qualified people who have worked in TPS for over a decade who should have been considered instead of bringing in someone who has been run out of her state because she is a high-stakes-testing pusher and part of the poverty-punishing machine. I don’t want that for my child or her teachers.”
News coverage of Gist’s six-year tenure as Rhode Island’s education commissioner runs the gamut of being named one of Time Magazine’s most influential people of 2010 to the lows of a 2013 survey that found that 85 percent of Rhode Island teachers didn’t think her employment contract should be renewed.
Gist’s membership in Chiefs for Change, the same education policy advocacy group to which controversial former Oklahoma State Superintendent Janet Barresi belonged, has also raised eyebrows.
Ferguson-Palmer, the local teachers union president, said late Monday that “the Chiefs for Change affiliation was the first red flag for us. Our district leadership led the fight against Barresi, so we just can’t understand why they would bring in someone so similar.”
Tulsa Public Schools provided this list of student achievement gains in Rhode Island during Gist’s time as education commissioner:
In 2013, for the first time ever, the percent of Rhode Island students scoring proficient or better was above the national average in all four assessments in mathematics and reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, commonly referred to as the “Nation’s Report Card.”
Over the past four years, Rhode Island’s four-year graduation rate has climbed from 76 percent to 80 percent, while the dropout rate has declined by 5 points, from 14 percent to 9 percent.
The dropout rate among black students has been cut in half, from 20 percent to 10 percent, over the past four years. For Hispanic students, dropouts declined from 22 percent to 15 percent — a 7-point improvement.
The number of Rhode Island public school students taking advanced placement exams increased by 67 percent over the past five years.
Minority students in Rhode Island have made significant strides in AP scores, an indicator of college readiness. Hispanic students achieved a 19.1 percent increase over the previous year, and black students achieved a 40.3 percent increase.
The percentage of recent Rhode Island high school graduates entering the Community College of Rhode Island who needed remedial courses is down to 66 percent, a 3 percentage-point improvement and the lowest percentage since 2009.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister issued this statement on Gist’s selection Monday evening:
“I congratulate Dr. Gist in being selected by the Board of Education for the Tulsa Public School district to be the next superintendent. I am pleased to see a graduate of the Tulsa Public Schools return home to lead the district where her notable education career was launched. She is fully invested in public education and I am looking forward to working with Dr. Gist.”