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An interview with Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist on district storm recovery

Tulsa Public Schools
Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist.

The severe storm that hit Tulsa the night of June 17 impacted practically every part of the city, and Tulsa Public Schools was no exception. Every single campus in the state’s largest public school district was damaged in the high winds and heavy rains, forcing the district to improvise when it came to some of its services.

Oklahoma Public Media Exchange reporter Max Bryan sat down with Superintendent Deborah Gist to talk about how the storm impacted the services the district provides, and how the district has since responded.

Max Bryan: Can you give me any hard numbers as to how many campuses within TPS have sustained damage?

Deborah Gist: All of our schools have had some kind of result from the storm, and it varied in terms of severity. So some of our sites, it was just picking up the debris that was on the campus. And that ranged everywhere from that to another one of our sites, where we lost a number of windows. We lost windows a lot of places, but at one site, we lost a good section of windows. Fortunately, that happened at a site that was already scheduled for renovation, so the space, the room where that had happened, had already been cleared for renovation. So there was nothing that was damaged as a result of that, and our team was able to secure the site right away.

Bryan: At a news conference last week, Mayor Bynum did mention that there were people who were dumping debris on school sites. Did you have to address that?

Gist: We addressed that by asking the Mayor to let folks know, you know, remind them, you know, that not only would the city be coming by to collect that debris for them, but also that it made it more difficult for us to finish our work to get our summer program up and running, which was the key point to us. Initially when it was happening, we were in the “good neighbor” mindset, and were trying to be supportive of folks. But as soon as the city announced their plans for picking up the debris, we really needed that message to get out, because it was really slowing us down.

Bryan: So I think probably one of the bigger questions I have is, how did this impact things like summer learning and school lunches and things like that?

Gist: Yes. I think the summer cafe interruption was one of the things that we were most urgently working to get back up and running, and academically, we had a few disruptions. One is to programming that we provide for students with special needs who receive that educational experience throughout the year as a result of their needs. So that was interrupted. We had some high school course recovery programming that was interrupted. And then we had our Tulsa Teacher Corps programming that was scheduled to start last week. So the good news is, we are back up and running with all of that programming, and I would say by tomorrow, that should be all up and running in its assigned location. We had a couple of days while electricity was coming back on where we still had some safety issues that we still had to resolve, and so we still had some programming efforts moved to other locations. But tomorrow — Wednesday — we should have all of our programming up and running in its assigned location.

Bryan: So where is the recovery now? I know you alluded a little bit to it about summer learning and school lunches being up and running by Wednesday of this week. So are there any other details you can give me about where the recovery is at at this moment?

Gist: Well, to be clear, everything was up and running as of the start of this week on Monday, the 26th. What we needed to do then was have some sites alternatively located for whatever need that might be. In some cases, it was debris; in other cases, it was spotty electricity, some issue that was more localized, or it might have been an air conditioning unit. So depending on different factors, we had some locations that were placed with another site. So where we are now is, I’m confident that by tomorrow or at least mid-this week, that we will have everything in its proper location where it’s intended to be. Which means that for the most part, we are up and going. I will say that we still have some fencing that the team is working on; debris that is not a safety issue because it’s moved away, but it still needs to be managed. So we are still functioning in that recovery mode in that sense.

Bryan: How do things look just going forward from here?

Gist: Things look great. We are thrilled to be up and running. Nobody likes to have had that experience or lost that week, and I know Tulsans all have had that same, either from a personal or a small business perspective, or both. So it’s not unique to us, but we all had that experience. But the good news is that we have a great team, and we’re back up and running, and we have great things planned. And we’re gearing up for our Ready, Set, Summer programming, which is much larger than the programming that’s going on right now. And that’s geared up to start July 5.

Max Bryan is a news anchor and reporter for KWGS.
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