Ray Carter | March 9, 2021

Tulsa superintendent bashes critics

Ray Carter

Tulsa Superintendent Deborah Gist recently slammed area citizens who have raised conflict-of-interest concerns about Gist and some members of the Tulsa Public Schools (TPS) Board of Education, calling the complaints “blatant falsehoods.”

But during her comments, made during this month’s board meeting, Gist also effectively conceded the validity of some issues raised by critics.

In recent months, several Tulsa citizens have filed formal grievances with Tulsa schools raising conflict-of-interest concerns.

The formal grievances include one complaint that notes Gist’s husband, Ronnie Jobe, is the senior vice president and manager of institutional markets for Bank of Oklahoma (BOKF), which serves as paying agent and registrar for a Tulsa district bond and has received contracts from Tulsa schools that were “entered into without having gone through a competitive bidding process.”

Two other complaints raise concerns about board members Jania Wester and Judith Barba’s personal ties to Growing Together, an entity that provides contracted services to students and teachers in Tulsa schools. The complaints note that Growing Together “is overseen and managed” by Wester’s spouse, Kirk Wester, and that Barba “is employed by Growing Together.”

In her regular “superintendent’s report” during the TPS March board meeting, Gist attacked citizens who have raised those concerns, saying critics were “actively spreading false information about purported conflicts of interest and unlawful conduct by me and also certain board members.”

The Tulsa superintendent said responding to those concerns “steal hours and likely cumulative months at this point of our district’s time and attention.”

Gist repeated statements previously made by a district spokesperson regarding alleged conflicts of interest, saying board members Wester and Barba do not “own an interest in Growing Together, nor do their spouses.”

However, the formal complaints do not directly indicate either board member is an owner of Growing Together.

Gist also said neither board member “has participated in a vote approving a contract with Growing Together.”

But the formal grievances cite Tulsa Board of Education records showing that on July 6, 2020, Wester did vote to approve an encumbrance of $390,000 paid by the district to Growing Together, and that on March 23, 2020, Wester voted to approve the payment of $112,000 to Resolute PR, a marketing firm that performed work in concert with Growing Together executive leadership to brand Tulsa Public Schools in Wester’s district with the Growing Together brand.

Critics said both votes financially benefited Growing Together.

Gist did not address those votes in her comments.

Gist also indicated Barba’s employment by Growing Together could represent a conflict of interest.

“If she has any question about her employment creating even the appearance of a conflict, she may—and I’m sure she will—seek legal guidance to resolve these issues,” Gist said.

Gist said Barba “may abstain from any vote that she believed presents a conflict of interest for her and doing so does not prevent her from serving effectively as a board member.”

While stating that her husband has no direct role in Bank of Oklahoma’s work on Tulsa Public Schools’ bond issues, Gist also indicated changes should be implemented regarding the no-bid contracts that BOKF has received from the district.

“The relatively small amount of BOK’s compensation for this work, which is about $10,000 a year, is $40,000 below the district’s policy-based threshold for competitive bidding,” Gist said. “I do not suggest that seeking bids for future work is a bad idea. And, in fact, I support that.”

The formal grievances filed by citizens have noted that Tulsa Public Schools Board of Education policy states, “No employee should have any outside business interests that might, in fact or appearance, interfere with the employee’s loyalty to the District.” The policy also states that no employee should “have any interest or association that interferes with, or appears to impair, the independent exercise of the employee’s judgment in the best interests of the District.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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