Dr. Ebony Johnson became the first black woman to be elected permanent Superintendent of Tulsa Public Schools (TPS) shortly after 11 pm December 11, 2023. Her election was the highly anticipated result of this regularly scheduled school board meeting. A record-breaking crowd, having waited one and one-half hours for the executive session to conclude, cheered and took photos to commemorate the occasion. Dr. Johnson’s tenure as Superintendent of TPS starts immediately and runs through June 30, 2026.
The board vote was four in favor, two against and one abstention. Board members E’Lena Ashley and Dr. Jennettie Marshall voted no, and Dr. Jerry Griffin abstained.
The following day board member Dr. Jerry Griffin tendered his resignation effective January 2, 2024. He said that the timing is not related to the board’s decision, but rather to his career decision. He is preparing to launch a national tour to promote his vision of educational reform based on a book he has written.
Over the next several days various stakeholders weighed in. State Superintendent of Education Ryan Walters labeled the board a “rubber stamp” and said it is “barreling toward drastic action”. Tulsa Mayor Bynum said that he agrees with Superintendent Walters pushing TPS for academic excellence, but disagrees with how he has gone about pursuing it. Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt recommended that everyone should calm down and give Dr. Johnson the benefit of the doubt and the chance to see if she can change TPS’s academic outcomes.
Now for the details of this historic board meeting which opened with a flag ceremony presented by the Booker T Washington Jr. ROTC. Atypically there were no special presentations, or any minutes presented for approval. Also atypically, there were three opportunities for citizen comments – (1) the action agenda about a school partnership, (2) general subjects, and (3) non-routine items (the employment of Dr. Ebony Johnson). There is always one such opportunity, occasionally two, rarely three!
The consent agenda, the next item of business, had forty-nine items. Counting the provided backup information, the consent agenda was thirty-seven pages long. Board member Lamkin, referring to an item about Power School, asked if the money allocated would be or could be used to allow parents to view their student’s cumulative GPA. She was assured that it would give parents all the information needed to be sure that their student was on track for graduation.
Board member Dr. Jerry Griffin asked about an item he believed was on the encumbrance report regarding Inside Education, LLC. That item was not found on the current encumbrance report. The consent agenda passed with six “yes” votes, Dr. Griffin voted “present”.
The meeting proceeded to Citizen comments on the action agenda item which concerned the status of the Four Mothers Academy partnership with TPS. The one public commenter prayed for guidance since the decision will have lasting impact. The board rejected the application for partnership because the application was incomplete. Six board members agreed while board member Diamond Marshall voted “present”.
Two “general subjects” citizens’ comments followed. Ashley Daly spoke against State Superintendent Walters and the State Board of Education gaining control of TPS and in favor of keeping Dr. Johnson. The second speaker read her parody of the 12 Days of Christmas expressing her anxiety and frustrations about TPS’s delayed accreditation.
Next Dr. Johnson gave the superintendent’s report. She began her report with thanks to the board and community for making her the interim superintendent and for their continued support. She especially thanked educators, support staff, counselors, and administrators as well as family and friends – many present in the room for her report.
As of her report she had served 57 days as the interim superintendent. She made twelve school visits, had sixty-five community engagements, and met with 100s of families. She is focused on (1) mobilizing staff talent to address the needs of the most challenged school sites and to dramatically increase high school graduation, (2) increasing oversight to promote academic improvement in all sites, (3) reducing chronic absenteeism with parental and community assistance, and (4) developing greater financial transparency. Her motto is “SUCCESS IS THE ONLY OPTION.”
Her report is available online as part of the recording of the 12/11/23 meeting on Tulsa Public Schools Livestream at https://tpstv.viebit.com
The next item, item L on the agenda, was to “Approve an emergency suspension of any requirements that may exist for posting, recruiting, and advertising the position of superintendent of school pursuant to Board Policy 1201”. This was the “hot button” of the meeting.
Board member Lamkin read a prepared motion that detailed the specific positions that are open or will soon become open in the TPS administration that would/may constitute the “emergency” noted in the paragraph above. It was seconded by board vice president Croisant. An often meandering and confusing discussion followed.
The first element, brought up by board member Dr. Griffin, was why the board is addressing emergency suspension of any requirements surrounding offering a contract to Dr. Johnson before the board has even decided to offer such a contract.
Board counsel answered saying that comments had been received threatening legal action based on the commentor(s) reading of the Board Policy if the board offers a contract. Dr. Griffin stated his opinion that the board should first decide if they will offer a contract and then decide if they wish to suspend any procedural requirements.
Dr. Marshall stated that she sees the current move as a way to circumvent policy. She said it appears similar to past instances in which selected members of the board including the president and vice president and later she herself knew things about the departure of Dr. Gist, the selection of Dr. Johnson as interim superintendent, and the plans surrounding searching for a permanent superintendent that other board members did not know.
Dr. Marshall sees the process as “clouded” and the board as not being transparent or as including all the board members. She referred to an “ad hoc committee”. She believes that the board has already violated policy and would like to start a national search. Board counsel noted that there is a motion on the floor that must be dealt with first.
Dr. Marshall then moved to table agenda item “L” and Dr. Griffin seconded. Board member Diamond Marshall pointed out she was not at any ad hoc meetings. Dr. Marshall apologized for not making it clear that the “Marshall” she referred to in her earlier comments was herself. She clarified that she was a member of an ad hoc committee to consider a search for a permanent superintendent and had only recently learned that other board members were not aware of the committee’s existence.
President Woolley then revealed that she had decided to form an ad hoc committee. Dr. Griffin interjected that he is not against Dr. Johnson, but against the process. Dr. Marshall asked to hear the policy covering the formation of ad hoc committees and those present learned that ad hoc committees have been used in TPS for many years.
Continued discussion revealed that Dr. Griffin was asked if he was interested in an ad hoc committee, and he said “no”. He said he viewed the “asking” as exploratory not as an “invitation to join such a committee.” As the discussion went on it appears that the ad hoc committee consisted of Stacy Woolley, Susan Lamkin, and Dr. Marshall. John Croisant was invited, declined, and recommended that Dr. Marshall be invited.
There followed a discussion about “emergency” and whether the board could further discuss the definition and what to do about it in executive session. Board member Diamond Marshall urged that they move away from talking about the ad hoc committee and definitions and on to voting about whether to declare an emergency.
There was some additional discussion about how helpful declaring an emergency would be to insulate board against any legal action for not following policy. Board counsel opined that it would have more impact on decisions made in the current board meeting than on previous board actions or inactions.
Board president Woolley called the question concerning tabling the motion to declare an emergency. The motion failed four to three with board members Ashley, Dr. Griffin, and Dr. Marshall voting “yes”.
Board president Woolley then called the question on the motion to declare an emergency. The motion passed four to three with board members Dr. Marshall and Ashley voting “No” and Dr. Griffin abstaining.
Item “M” public comments on non-routine items – hiring Dr. Johnson as permanent superintendent – was the next agenda item. Eighteen of the twenty-two speakers who signed up to speak, spoke. Eleven spoke in favor of hiring Dr. Johnson as TPS’s permanent superintendent and seven speakers were opposed.
The majority of the speakers in opposition were not opposed to Dr. Johnson, in fact many praised her work. They were, however, unified in opposing not having a nationwide search in accordance with TPS board rules. Several of the speakers also noted that the current administrative vacancies do not justify declaring an emergency designed to circumvent the board rules.
Three hours and two minutes into this board meeting, the board went into executive session. They returned to open session one and one-half hours later.
The board unanimously agreed to return to open session. Board Vice President Croisant moved to hire Dr. Johnson as Superintendent of TPS effective immediately pursuant to the contract agreed upon in executive session. This was seconded by board member Lamkin.
Board member Diamond Marshall then asked VP Croisant if he would accept an amendment to his motion to add a year to the contract agreed upon in executive session. He agreed. Board counsel asked VP Croisant to read the amended motion before the vote was called. The amended motion made it clear that, if the motion passed, Dr. Johnson would become Superintendent effective immediately and her contract would end June 30, 2026.
Before the vote was called, board member Dr. Griffin thanked former mayor Susan Savage for pointing out that he was the first person who wanted to offer Dr. Johnson a contract as superintendent. He added that he is confident that Dr. Johnson will do a wonderful job. Board member Dr. Marshall said that the board violated the executive session rules by speaking about an item that the attorney said they should not speak about. Board member Ashley stated that the board was now setting a precedent for students and future boards that it is alright to ignore established board policies.
The vote was called, the amended motion passed with four “yes” votes, two “no” votes and one “abstention”. Board members Ashley and Dr. Johnson voted “no” and Dr. Griffin abstained. The date of the next scheduled board meeting (January 8, 2024, at 6:30 pm) was announced and the room erupted into heartfelt sustained applause.
In the days following the regular board meeting, board president Stacey Woolley called a special meeting for December 18 at 9 am. The meeting was intended to last throughout the day. The primary purpose of the meeting was to discuss revisions to TPS Board Goals 1, 2, 1.2 and 3.3 and the removal of Guardrails 1, 3, and 5 in a conversation facilitated by the Council of Great City Schools’ representatives. The agenda included an executive session to discuss “pending claims or actions” concerning the Oklahoma Teacher Retirement Services. Those goals and guardrails are listed in “Pathways to Opportunity” TPS’ 2022-2027 Strategic Plan and are available on the TPS website.
This board meeting did not occur because the board did not have a quorum. On the morning of Monday December 18 only three of the seven board members came to the meeting room, 200-C in the Charles C. Mason Education Service Center. Stacey Woolley, John Croisant, and Susan Lamkin attended and had informal discussions about goals for about five hours. The remaining board members had various conflicts with the meeting time and date including doctor’s appointments.
At the time of this writing there are no additional special board meetings scheduled.