TPS Supt. Gist out as accreditation, financial probes loom
By John Dobberstein, Editor
Tulsa Public Schools Supt. Deborah Gist has tendered her resignation following a stormy tenure for the last few years.
Word of Gist’s decision came late Monday ahead of a State Board of Education Meeting Thursday where board members are expected to discuss the district’s accreditation status.
In a special school board meeting tonight, Dr. Ebony Johnson is expected to be considered for appointment as interim superintendent of TPS, whom Gist described as “a lifelong Tulsan, a stellar educator, a strong leaders, and a remarkable human being.”
State Supt. of Public Instruction Ryan Walters has threatened a state takeover of the school district due to unsatisfactory test scores and alleged financial mismanagement that has drawn the attention of the FBI and State Auditor Cindy Byrd.
“I’ve been crystal clear that Tulsa Public Schools needs a dramatic change in leadership, and I am pleased to see the board taking this seriously with the removal of Deborah Gist,” Walters said in a statement. “From day one, I called for the removal of Gist (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. Financial transparency and academic outcomes must come next. I will always put Tulsa kids first.”
The takeover discussion has drawn both praise and scorn from residents and political leaders.
In a letter to the school district’s employees, Gist said it’s “no secret that (Walters) has had an unrelenting focus on our district and specifically on me and I am confident 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 am stepping away. What we have built together is larger and stronger than any one of us, and this team will continue to serve our students and make the improvements we know our students need and deserve.”
In a memo addressed to the State Board of Education for tomorrow’s meeting, general counsel Bryan Cleveland said he was asked by Walters to address the role of staff in the accreditation process “and whether there are additional concerns that the State Board could address when reviewing the status” of TPS.
He noted the accrediting agency for school districts is the State Board, not department staff. “The Board may freely seek additional information or make its own judgment on status, which is why it has rejected staff recommendations in the past,” Cleveland wrote.
But Cleveland did state that after talking with finance and compliance staff that he believed “there are additional concerns that may be relevant to the Board’s decision” on Thursday.
Cleveland said TPS has been risking misuse of its finances through a lack of internal controls for the past few years.
He said TPS’ former chief talent and equity officer – who was Devin Fletcher -- “successfully instructed multiple staff at TPS to approve vendors, create purchase orders, and expedite payments all without complying with the district’s procurement policy,” Cleveland wrote. “Three questionable vendors were identified, with two contracts totaling $343,000 with no clear business purpose and one contract totaling $648,000, some portion of which had no business purpose.”
Cleveland added that Fletcher “also received payments from certain vendors and directed a vendor to make illicit bonus payments to other TPS employees in FY 2021 and FY 2022.”
While Fletcher is no longer employed by TPS, “the findings are alarming because they involve multiple TPS employees,” Cleveland wrote.
“Approving vendors, creating purchase orders, and issuing payments all occurred without effective oversight or monitoring, and (Fletcher) did not take those actions alone. The audit findings do not explain whether the TPS procurement employees who assisted in bypassing district policy were also the same staff that received bonus payments from the vendors at issue.”
Cleveland also said he was told by Walters that multiple TPS board members have complained they’re not receiving all requested financial information from the district, with the complaints dating back to at least 2021.
“I also have staff reviewing the responses from recent document requests from TPS, and they observed that the encumbrance report from TPS contains too little information to adequately inform the local board of expenses,” Cleveland noted. “The report fails to provide descriptions of expenses, even if the title is a nondescript LLC, and encumbrance adjustments are difficult to match with original encumbrance amounts.
“These encumbrance reports do not appear to provide information that would allow for local board oversight of TPS because they show the plan but not the actual outcome.”
Cleveland said the district’s apparent improper management of finances is “alarming” because potential mismanagement of school funds “steers money away from teachers and students.”
Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum said Wednesday he was “incredibly grateful” for Gist’s service, who he said “took on some of the greatest challenges facing Tulsa students -- from substandard teacher pay that makes it difficult for us to compete with other states, to student safety amidst the greatest public health crisis in our city’s history.
“She was always willing to speak truth to power on behalf of the children she has dedicated her life to serving. On their behalf, and on behalf of our city, I want to thank Dr. Gist for all she has done for Tulsa.”
Gov. Kevin Stitt, in a statement that did not address Gist’s tenure specifically, said he was “committed to working with any stakeholder who is ready to help” build a Top 10 education system accessible to all families and students. Stitt requested an investigative audit by Byrd 13 months ago after news of potential mishandling of public funds came to light.
“As Tulsa Public Schools enters this next chapter, I urge the school board to conduct a thorough national search with the input of the Tulsa community, from past and present TPS families, local job creators, neighborhood churches and non-profits,” Stitt said.
“We are at a pivotal point in which our decisions today, as a community and as a state, will impact an entire generation of Oklahomans, and I am confident that by working together, we can ensure these decisions set these children up for success and with hope for a bright future.”