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I was drawn to the realm of news reporting due to my fervent commitment to rectify and reshape narratives. 

This motivation finds its prime example in my scrutiny of the unfolding saga between Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters and Tulsa Public Schools (TPS) Superintendent Dr. Deborah Gist, an issue that has captured the local and now national media’s attention. What is striking is the stark dichotomy in the narratives being woven around this incident. 

Two Narratives Unfold while Local Democracy Cracks

On one hand, there’s the portrayal of Ryan Walters as a resolute conservative trailblazer, successfully realizing his ambitions to reshape Oklahoman education according to his Christian national values. On the other, the story unfolds as that of an empathetic leader, Dr. Deborah Gist, who made the voluntary decision to relinquish her position as superintendent of TPS in order to safeguard the democratic underpinnings of Oklahoma’s second largest school district – one of the few institutions within the state with a progressive majority Board.

The veracity of both renditions cannot be denied; they are rooted in factual occurrences.

However, the crux of the challenge resides in the manner and extent to which each narrative is contextualized by those vested with the responsibility of reporting and publishing. 

Recognizing when a media peddles half-truths or omits context is the first step towards upholding the integrity of journalism in an era where democracy appears unstable. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us, as responsible citizens, to not only consume news but also critique it when it deviates from its fundamental duty of impartially presenting facts. The foundation of our democracy relies on accurate reporting of facts and ensuring that those who spread falsehoods are held to account.

OPINION: Walters' coup, the unpinning of a school district's demoracy
Ryan Walters sworn in as Oklahoma State Superintendent (Jan 2023 – Photo: SUE OGROCKI, AP)

Ryan Walters and Deborah Gist Context 

At the outset, State Superintendent Ryan Walters maintained a consistent approach of diminishing the significance of historical realities such as the enslavement of Black individuals in America, the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, and the era of Jim Crow or the existence of the LGBTQIA+ community. This approach appeared to be geared towards averting any sense of guilt among White or Christian students rather than directing attention towards improving Reading and Math proficiency or ensuring responsible financial management within TPS. The latter seemed to serve as a public persuasion tactic to perpetuate the emphasis on the way history and Christianity is being conveyed in the state, considering his background as a former Oklahoma history teacher and Christian nationalist. 

Gist’s district has undeniably experienced learning setbacks as a result of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. Consequently, it’s important to recognize that TPS is not an isolated case. Across the country, various districts are grappling with the challenges of learning loss. Specifically, TPS’s Reading and Math scores closely resemble those of other urban areas like Oklahoma City, reflecting the widespread impact of the pandemic. Moreover, it’s essential to consider that a significant number of students in urban settings hail from communities that lack adequate resources, providing further context to this situation. 

TPS Superintendent Deborah Gist has demonstrated complete transparency with both the Tulsa Public School’s Board of Education and the general public concerning the embezzlement scandal involving a former TPS employee. Under her leadership, the administration took the initiative to engage an impartial investigator who carried out a comprehensive financial audit. This diligent approach led to a resolution where the former employee’s bank accounts were frozen, and the misappropriated funds were successfully recovered and returned to the district. 

Unfortunately, too many media outlets are leaving out this important context. 

With disregard, Walter persisted in criticizing Gist publicly, using the pretext of financial mismanagement and low test scores. This was part of his political strategy to secure the support of the Oklahoma State Board of Education which may choose to follow Walters’ lead of removing TPS accreditation. 

It’s crucial to keep in mind that in the previous year, TPS’s accreditation was downgraded to a “deficiency” status. This action followed a complaint from a White teacher who claimed that her involvement in an implicit bias training program required by TPS went against HB 1775, a law in Oklahoma that opposes Critical Race Theory (CRT). It’s worth noting that this teacher was also accused of telling her Muslim students that they would face damnation unless they embraced Jesus Christ as their personal savior. Interestingly, these events coincide with Walter’s Christian-Nationalist persona.

Throughout his brief time in the public eye, Ryan Walter has consistently intertwined facts with fiction. Perhaps the most egregious falsehood he propagated was the baseless claim that teacher unions were “terrorist organizations”.

His most recent fabrication centers around the assertion that the Tulsa Public School Board of Education ousted Deborah Gist from her role. Presumably, this narrative aims to bolster his image as a stern conservative capable of quelling progressive ideologies in school districts. Nevertheless, the reality stands far removed from his narrative.

Deborah Gist, Superintendent of Tulsa Public School; OPINION: Walters' coup, the unpinning of a school district's demoracy
Dr. Deborah Gist says she welcomes an audit, but rejects the “political theater” from Governor Stitt and Secretary Ryan Walters

Following Gist’s resignation, Walter disseminated misleading information within an official government document on Twitter. This misinformation falsely indicated that the Tulsa Public School’s Board of Education had ousted Gist, tarnishing her reputation in the process. This deliberate act aimed to sway individuals who exclusively follow Walter’s narrative due to his elected position. Consequently, they might come to believe that the members of the TPS Board unanimously held Gist accountable for some perceived wrongdoing that warranted her removal. 

Contrary to this misinformation, the reality remains that a significant portion of the TPS Board, along with district students, educators and the community at large, rallied behind Gist’s leadership. Walters never got public buy-in from Tulsans. Even Tulsa’s Republican mayor rejected Walter’s Board recommendations publicly. 

The essential truth is that Ryan Walters, who subscribes to conspiracy theories and even entertains the belief that a foreign language class at one of the state’s esteemed institutions is propagating Chinese Communist ideals, embarked on a political coup attempt on the state’s second-largest progressive and inclusive stronghold. However, many media outlets are omitting this fact as well. 

His maneuver aimed to subvert the natural democratic process as he dissented from the decisions made by the majority of TPS Board members. In doing so, he also disagreed with the broader community consensus who elected the TPS Board members regarding who should assume the helm of leadership at Tulsa Public Schools. 

It’s a microcosm of the larger Republican strategy. His plan is seemingly to reform TPS’s institution to be less democratic and more authoritarian with the introduction of PragerU

Why We Must Hold Media and Politicians Accountable

The narrative surrounding Ryan Walters and Dr. Deborah Gist encapsulates a quintessential example of the dual tales that media can weave. 

This nuance assumes paramount significance, as the way these narratives are presented possesses the profound capability to sway public sentiment and mold policies that govern us. The realization dawns upon us that the journalistic lens through which these events are captured holds immense power—power to shape the collective perception of truth.

So, let us be the guardians of truth, standing against the tide of misinformation and heralding back to an era where reporting is synonymous with accuracy, transparency, and accountability.

In conclusion, our role at The Black Wall Street Times is to always question, critique, and demand honesty.

Nehemiah D. Frank is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Black Wall Street Times and a descendant of two families that survived the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Although his publication’s store and newsroom...

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