PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist is one step closer to leaving the state after the Tulsa School Board in Oklahoma voted Monday to offer her a contract to become the city’s next superintendent.
In a statement, Gist said she “enthusiastically agreed to begin these negotiations.”
“This was a difficult decision for me, as I am proud of all that we have accomplished together in Rhode Island over the past six years,” Gist said. “I love this state and the people I’ve come to know, and I am excited about the opportunities that lie before us as we develop our next five-year strategic plan. Nevertheless, inspired by the great work we’ve done, I welcome the opportunity to lead an urban school district – in particular the district in the city where I was raised and where my family resides.”
Gist, who attended Tulsa public schools for kindergarten through 12th grade before earning her undergraduate degree from the University of Oklahoma, was one of two finalists in the search to replace retiring Superintendent Keith Ballard, but the other candidate pulled out of the search process last week.
Gist has been Rhode Island’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 previously she wants to remain in Rhode Island, but also indicated that applying for the Tulsa job “was too exciting of an opportunity to forgo.”
In a statement issued Tuesday morning, Raimondo congratulated Gist on her selection, saying Tulsa had “made an excellent choice.”
“I’m thankful for Commissioner Gist’s great work on behalf of Rhode Island’s children,” Raimondo said, saying Gist “raised expectations” for students and teachers, expanded early childhood education, and encouraged the use of technology in the classroom.
“In the coming weeks, we will begin a process to collect community input as we work to identify a new commissioner,” Raimondo said. “We will engage in conversations with parents, teachers, students, school leaders, and superintendents across the state about the characteristics needed in our next commissioner to best serve our students and ensure a smooth transition.”
“My main focus is on creating opportunity for Rhode Island families,” the governor added. “Not only is a good education a ladder to success, but great schools and a pipeline of trained workers help attract companies to invest and grow jobs.”
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.
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