Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist will delay bringing her controversial Indian Education Program reorganization proposal to the board of education due to extensive community feedback.
School board members still are expected to vote on the rest of the proposed district office personnel reductions during a special meeting on Feb. 13. But they won’t hear the Indian Education changes, which include the elimination of seven resource advisers, until March.
The decision was made following a contentious public meeting Thursday night in which community members lambasted district officials for the proposal. Gist and other administrators spent nearly four hours explaining the rationale for the changes and answering heated questions from a room filled with native stakeholders and their supporters.
“There are so many ways in which the feedback has provided us value, and we know there’s more that we need to know,” Gist said.
She said the recommendation for reorganizing the Indian Education Program is being separated from the rest of the proposed personnel reductions to give officials an additional month to continue listening and engaging with the community.
Additionally, Gist shared a document titled “Commitment to Collaboration” that features signatures from the principal chiefs of the Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek) and Osage nations at Monday night’s school board meeting.
The document outlines several steps to be taken throughout February to improve the reorganization proposal and direct student services. These include conducting a survey to collect feedback and recommendations, consulting with local tribal leaders and engaging in additional conversations with stakeholder groups such as the Greater Tulsa Indian Affairs Commission and the Tulsa Native Youth Board.
Another goal involves better communication surrounding what is and what isn’t occurring within the reorganization and how the proposal is evolving based on feedback.
The document also features longer-term plans to schedule quarterly tribal consultation and improve communication with native students and families as well as the Tulsa Indian Education Parent Committee.
“We feel very encouraged about this step and are confident that this is going to help us to make sure that the proposal we’re going to bring to the board of education in March is fully informed and the right design that we need,” Gist said.
The latest draft of the Indian Education reorganization proposal involves eliminating the program’s seven resource advisers on 10-month contracts and replacing them with three student specialists on 12-month contracts.
There also would be six noncertified teacher assistants providing resources to native students at six school sites instead of four teacher assistants at four school sites. The proposal further calls for hiring a 12-month cultural enrichment specialist and a customer care associate.
Much of the controversy has surrounded the deletion of federally funded positions. Indian Education employees are funded through Title VI, which annually provides federal grant money based on the number of eligible students with 506 forms documenting native heritage.
Administrators say the recommended changes are a response to reduced federal grant funding resulting from a decline in students with 506 forms. Title VI is funded on a per-pupil basis, and the number of eligible students reportedly has declined by more than 600 in at least seven years.
The proposal resulted in considerable backlash from tribal organizations. In a letter sent to Gist on Jan. 20, Muscogee (Creek) Nation Principal Chief David Hill and Second Chief Del Beaver, expressed confusion about cutting federally funded positions and urged the superintendent to reconsider her recommendation.
On Tuesday, Hill told the Tulsa World in a statement that his tribe is encouraged the district is “reconsidering the continuation of crucial Indian Education programs.”
“Any reduction in programmatic support would dramatically impact the ability of Native American students to engage in important cultural and educational opportunities,” Hill said. “We remain committed to working with TPS and other tribal nations to ensure native children are receiving the resources, support and opportunities they need.”