Former RI Education Commissioner Gist Now Pro-Union

Apr 2, 2018

Deborah Gist in 2014
Credit Elisabeth Harrison / RIPR

Deborah Gist, the former Rhode Island education commissioner who often jousted with teacher unions, has moved on to become the superintendent of schools in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she has become vocally pro-union.

If you are a veteran Rhode Island teacher, maybe you ought to be sitting down to read the rest of this post.

Gist declined, through a spokeswoman, to be interviewed on this topic by Rhode Island Public Radio. But she told the New York Times and the Tulsa World that she supports the Oklahoma Education Association teachers union in its quest for higher teacher salaries.

From the NY Times:

“Deborah Gist, who as the hard-charging education commissioner in Rhode Island tried to weaken teachers seniority protections and often clashed with their union, is now Tulsa’s school superintendent and is allied with the Oklahoma union –the Oklahoma Education Association – in a fight for more money.”

The article went on to say: “Dr. Gist says she is unable to attract or retain effective educators because they can earn up to $20,000 per year more by moving to Texas or other neighboring states. Because so few licensed teachers are applying for jobs, Tulsa has relied on emergency certifications to hire more than 100 teachers who lack training in education.”

Said Gist to the Times:  “Our teachers are going above and beyond every single day for an unacceptable and unsustainable salary that doesn’t even provide them with a living wage.”

In an interview with the Tulsa World newspaper, Gist called the low pay for Oklahoma teachers a “glaring issue’ for the state. “They are highly educated and experienced professionals, and they deserve to be compensated as such, let alone the fact that the work they do is changing individual lives and truly the trajectory of our community in every way,” said Gist.

Public school teachers in Oklahoma are among the worst paid in the U.S., according to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The average Oklahoma teacher earns $42,647 annually, which ranks 49th among the fifty states. Mississippi is at the bottom at $42,043.

The top 10 average salary states are Alaska ($77,843); New York ($76,593); California ($75,867); Massachusetts ($71,587); New Jersey ($70,700); Rhode Island ($67,533); Maryland ($65,257); Illinois ($65,153) and Virginia ($63,493).

Robert Walsh, executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island, the union representing many Ocean State teachers, said he was “surprised and pleased” to find that Gist is supporting the unions in Oklahoma.

“I’m surprised and pleased to learn that she is supporting the actions of teachers in Oklahoma trying to get fair compensation,” said Walsh.

Walsh recalled that Rhode Island teachers and their unions battled Gist over issues other than salaries. “It started with Race to the Top,” said Walsh, the federal Barack Obama-era federal school program that relied heavily to student testing to evaluate teachers, which came on the heels of the George W. Bush era-No Child Left Behind initiative.

Gist also favored firing Central Falls unionized teachers and she supported an expansion of charter schools beyond what union teachers favored.

“ She did not want to work cooperatively with labor and wanted to dictate to us,” said Walsh. “She didn’t see us (teachers and unions) as equals.”

Gist also wanted to institute PARCC tests to evaluate teachers, which was opposed by teachers.

By the time Gov. Gina Raimondo refused to extend her contract in 2015, Walsh says, “75 to 80 percent of the teachers had lost confidence in her leadership.”

Walsh did say that Gist cared about children. A onetime elementary school teacher, Walsh says, “she would just light up when she was around kids, such as doing readings in classrooms.”

Low-paid teachers in other red states, including West Virginia and Kentucky, have also been active in supporting strikes and sick-outs in support of better pay and pensions.

“If she learned something, while she was here, that’s great,” said Walsh.

Gist earns $241,000 annually, with a $1,500 monthly stipend for car and cell phone expenses. In an interview with the Tulsa World, Gist reflected on her first year on as superintendent: “I’m loving it,” she said.