PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist said Tuesday she is a finalist for the school superintendent’s job in her hometown of Tulsa, Okla.
“I am enthusiastic about where we are with our efforts to improve Rhode Island’s education system and am extremely confident in Governor Raimondo’s leadership,” Gist said in a prepared statement. “I have enjoyed numerous conversations with the Governor and her team, and my relationship with the Board of Education is strong. At the same time, I was asked to enter the search for Tulsa Superintendent, and that was too exciting of an opportunity to forgo.”
Gist’s candidacy was first reported Monday by the Tulsa World. Tulsa’s current superintendent, Keith Ballard, is retiring June 30.
In a statement, the Tulsa School Board said it plans to interview Gist and former Tulsa Deputy Superintendent Millard House II, the other finalist, again this weekend.The board said it hopes to announce a final decision by the end of the month.
“It is our belief that these two candidates have what it takes to continue the district’s commitment to teacher and leader effectiveness and improving the results for all students,” the board said. “We are making great progress toward closing the achievement gap, and we believe our finalists both have unique talents and experience to continue this work.”
Gist has been the state’s education commissioner since 2009, but her contract ends June 30 and new Gov. Gina Raimondo has not indicated whether she intends to reappoint Gist to the job. Gist has said she wants to remain in her current position
“I consider this new opportunity with mixed emotions,” Gist said. “I will keep Rhode Islanders informed if there are any further developments regarding this potential career opportunity.”
If Gist does take the job in Oklahoma’s second-largest city, she’ll be entering a school system she’s very familiar with.
Gist attended Tulsa public schools for kindergarten through 12th grade before earning her undergraduate degree from the University of Oklahoma. In 2010, she told Tulsa People magazine that she decided to pursue education as a career because of an 8th grade project she did about a career as a preschool teacher.
Tulsa Public Schools has roughly 40,000 students, 77% of whom are eligible for free or reduced lunch, according the department’s website. The city’s school budget for the current school year is $556 million. By comparison, Providence has about 24,000 students, 87% of whom are eligible for free or reduced lunch. Providence’s school budget is $345 million. Both districts have majority-minority enrollments.
Gist, who holds master’s degrees from the University of South Florida and Harvard as well as a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania, came to Rhode Island in 2009 after serving as the state superintendent of education in Washington, D.C. Her husband, Jock Friedly, still resides in Washington. He’s the owner of LegiStorm, which publishes contact information and salaries of congressional staffers.
Within a year of coming Rhode Island, Gist was recognized by Time magazine as one of the “100 most influential people in the world” for her work to overhaul the teacher evaluation system. She earned praise from education reformers for lobbying the General Assembly to lift the state cap on charter schools and helping Rhode Island become one of the final states in the country to implement a school funding formula.
At the same, Gist has drawn the ire of Rhode Island’s teachers’ unions, who have opposed most of her signature initiatives and blamed her for low teacher morale. In 2013, shortly before she was given a two-year contract extension, the unions released a poll that showed 85% of teachers did not want her to remain in the job.
Last year, state lawmakers overwhelmingly approved legislation to scale back the frequency of teacher evaluations for most teachers and to delay the use of standardized testing as part of the state’s high school graduation requirements. Gist opposed both measures, saying she was concerned “we’ve lost our sense of urgency” when it comes to improving schools.Dan McGowan ( firstname.lastname@example.org ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan