OK Board of Ed Resets TPS Goals

The State Board of Education (SDE) set “a bit more ambitious goals” during the November 30, 2023, monthly meeting by passing two board orders and added that Tulsa Public Schools (TPS) will continue to report monthly progress to the SDE. The new goals followed the TPS team’s monthly progress report on the goals that they had proposed and reported on during the October SDE meeting. The events of the week following this meeting set the stage for the well-attended special TPS Board Meeting of Monday December 11, 2023.

The first goal asks TPS to at least increase the percent of students who score basic or above from the current 41% to 46% (a 5% increase, 773 students) and asks TPS to shoot for 50% (a 9% increase, 1,391 students).

Note that when TPS reaches the 50% level that means that 50% of the students remain at the “below basic” or below grade level. Also note that “basic” does not mean that a student has mastered the requirements of the grade level tested. As TPS Interim Superintendent Johnson frequently says, “We have a lot of work to do.”

The second goal requires TPS to train ALL teachers and administrators in the science of reading not just 95% of all the elementary teachers and 95% of those secondary teachers involved in reading intervention work as proposed by TPS.

Todd Lofton, head of academic affairs for the state board, presented the state board’s response to TPS’s current efforts. He explained that the science of reading training needs be at least the available online 14-hour training course and that he expects that those teachers whose primary responsibilities are improving student reading skills will receive the more in-depth training modules available.

The third goal demands that 12 of the 18 schools currently on the “F” list will get off that list by improving their academic standing, being restructured, or being closed.

The fourth goal addresses what appears to be a communication breakdown between the TPS Finance Team and the SDE Finance Team. By December 8, the TPS financial team will set a specific time to meet on site in Tulsa with the OSBOE financial team.

Throughout SDE’s comments about TPS’s work to improve students’ academic success board members, especially Don Burdick who represents Tulsa and Superintendent Ryan Walters, heavily praised Interim Superintendent Dr. Johnson and her team for their work and openness to help and oversite. Members of the SDE team have made an unprecedented 108 site visits to 44 TPS schools and consistently found TPS staff open to observation and suggestions and working hard to improve student outcomes.

While the revised academic goals may appear to some TPS supporters to be too severe or to signal a SDE desire to take over, SDE Board Member Don Burdick repeatedly pointed out that the goals are within TPS’s reach based on Dr. Johnson’s reports that student academic growth has already begun. The SDE is doing what it said it would do: work with TPS, offer advice, provide resources, and monitor progress.

The fourth goal refers to the SDE objective for TPS’s financial transparency and improved financial controls. 

Dr. Johnson reported a list of five completed actions: 

  • review & approval process for Foundation for Tulsa School disbursements
  • a conflict-of-interest process for new employees
  • updated procurement processes
  • a revised vendor setup process
  • new fiscal reports

TPS Chief Financial Officer, Robles, provided additional details and information establishing that TPS is spending more money on teacher compensation and instruction than last year.

Attorney Brian Cleveland gave SBE’s comments about TPS’s financial reports.  He pointed out that while there has been change, the financial team is looking for more specificity regarding how funds are spent than is currently available in the TPS financial reports.  He provided several examples in which substantial funds using a purchase card or spent in accordance with a contract were listed simply as “miscellaneous”, “training services”, or “contract for services”. The two financial teams have been emailing but need to meet in person in Tulsa to collaborate and go over specificity. The aim is to achieve transparency and clarity, particularly for the encumbrance report.

As is customary, this SDE Board meeting began with a roll call (all six board members were present).  The meeting then opened with the Pledge of Allegiance, Salute to the Oklahoma State Flag and a Prayer. These were followed by Superintendent Walters’ report to the board. He first spoke about the successful tutoring programs held by Western Heights, OKC, Epic and Tulsa (among many others) during the Thanksgiving break and noted that they would also be held during the Christmas break. This tutoring feeds into community tutoring that will be starting in January when the state can begin to pay for that tutoring.

Second, Superintendent Walters noted that out of state groups continue to target students and teachers exercising their freedom of religion. The outside group(s) want atheism to be the de facto religion of Oklahoma schools. SDE will continue to push back on these efforts.

Third, Superintendent Walters talked about establishing rules and regulations linking academic outcomes to the accreditation process. By state statute Oklahoma accreditation standards should equal or exceed nationally recognized standards that are consistent with an academic results-oriented approach. Current accreditation standards do not consider student outcomes. 

In the coming several months a working team will be proposing a rule that 50% of the students in a school district must score at basic or above in math and reading for the school to be fully accredited. Stated in the negative, if more than 50% score below basic in reading or mathematics on state assessments, then the district would receive an academic deficiency.

Once written, the rule will “go out to the public” for 60 days for comment and possible rewriting and then it will come to the SDE for a vote. If a school has a deficiency, the working team is considering expecting five percent growth per academic year to eliminate the deficiency. 

The SDE then accepted the minutes of the October 26, 2023, board meeting and public comments were received.  The first three public comments were not related to the agenda.  Commentors complained that Superintendent Walters is out of the building too much, that only three off agenda comments are too few, asked who is paying for trips away from Oklahoma, noted that the Holy Bible decries homosexual behavior and explained that a former nurse must reinstate her surrendered nursing license in order to obtain an emergency teacher certification. 

Seven “on agenda” public comments followed.  One commentor spoke about possible financial irregularities at the SDE, another indicated that it was unnecessary to require TPS to report to the SDE monthly and the final speaker thanked the SDE for protecting Virtual School Choice.  The remaining four comments were presented by members of Defense of Democracy group.  Their comments focused on ensuring that state funds are not used to support any religion and pointed out that atheism is not a religion. 

Item six on the SDE agenda was the Consent Docket.  Superintendent Walters invited board members to pull off any of the items from that docket for open board discussion.  There were five action items covering a variety of topics including authorizing abbreviated school days for several districts, alternative education programs, library media services and issuance of emergency certificates. The consent docket was unanimously accepted.

The above detailed TPS presentation, SBE response, and resulting board rules (item 7 on the agenda) followed and took up the greatest part of this board meeting.

The SBE, in item 8 on the agenda, agreed to share aggregate data with college board especially since the Oklahoma will be increasing the number and variety of AP classes in the next several years.

Item 9 on the agenda concerned a 2014 severance allowance payment to a former employee.  Last month 10 of 11 such employees were granted the appropriate allowance last month; the 11th employee’s application lack some information that is now provided.  The item was unanimously approved.

Item 10 a-d covered various Legal Services issues and was presented by General Counsel, Bryan Cleveland. He explained that for item a, he received one complaint about a textbook used by Union Schools violating a critical race theory rule and is waiting to obtain the book.

Item b concerned certain changes to the alternative education rules insuring that appropriate funding follows the students and supports alternative educational options knowing that students’ needs differ. Attorney Cleveland explained that not all virtual school are considered alternative schools.  Item c was an addendum to a decision that was made in the October board meeting.  Items b and c passed unanimously. Item d was taken up in executive session since it involved pending litigation.

Readers should be aware that members of this board are provided with an extensive packet of information pertaining to the agenda.  Periodically during this meeting board members referred to having contacted the appropriate person(s) at SDE with their questions and having received satisfactory answers. The backup information is available to the public on the SDE website.

The events of the week following this SDE board meeting set the stage for the well-attended special TPS Board Meeting of Monday December 11, 2023. That meeting is the subject of a future article.

Tuesday December 5, Tulsa Mayor Bynum wrote a letter to the TPS board members urging that they offer Dr. Johnson a contract as the Superintendent of TPS.

Thursday December 7, four hundred Tulsans wrote a letter to the TPS board members also urging that they offer Dr. Johnson a contract as the Superintendent of TPS.  The authors included two Tulsa City Councilors: Vanessa Hall-Harper and Lori Decter Wright; Oklahoma State Representative Monroe Nichols; Oklahoma teacher of the year Traci Manuel; and former Interim Superintendent of Schools LaVerne Ford Wimberly.

Thursday December 7 – late in the day – State Superintendent Walters wrote a letter/memo to Tulsa Mayor Bynum and TPS board members urging them to launch a national search for a Superintendent of Tulsa Public Schools. Superintendent Walters indicated that Interim Superintendent Johnson is not sufficiently bold in promoting aggressive change and that local leaders should be involved in helping to select the next TPS Superintendent.

Friday December 8 the Tulsa World published part of a requested comment from TPS board president, Stacey Woolley.  She wrote in part “And it is impossible for a temporary leader to create permanent change.” This indicates a shift from her thinking during the most recent regular TPS board meeting on November 27 when the board only offered a resolution in favor or Dr. Johnson. 

Monday December 11 Interim Superintendent Dr Johnson wrote a memo responding to State Superintendent Walter’s memo. It included her:

  • Knowing that selection of a superintendent is, by law, under the control of the local board of education
  • Fearing that a national search would delay filling top leadership positions in TPS leadership since well-suited individuals are unlikely to leave current jobs without assurance of who will be in charge of the school district
  • Acknowledging the support expressed by SDE board members for her taking urgent actions and doing a great job
  • Pointing out her transparent, bold and aggressive leadership taking on all obstacles in the way of improved student outcomes since interim appointment
  • Assuring all that there is not, nor will there be a “culture of failure” during her watch

The drive to improve public education in Tulsa will continue, as will coverage on Tulsa Today.

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