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Ryan Walters' shadow looms over election losses in three Tulsa School Board races

Oklahoma Superintendent Ryan Walters has spent much of his tenure battling with Tulsa schools, but on Tuesday, voters appeared to hand him a stern message.
Photo illustration by Dylan Goforth
The Frontier
Oklahoma Superintendent Ryan Walters has spent much of his tenure battling with Tulsa schools, but on Tuesday, voters appeared to hand him a stern message.

Ryan Walters has spent much of his tenure as State Superintendent battling with Tulsa Public Schools, but on Tuesday, voters appeared to hand him a stern message.

When John Croisant began knocking doors and talking to voters last August in his bid to remain Tulsa’s District 5 school board representative, he had his pitch locked and loaded.

He wanted to end the chaos at the Tulsa school board, which is divided politically and ideologically. He wanted to maintain local control amid threats of a state takeover. He wanted to get away from the drama and focus on student outcomes, which need improvement in this vast, diverse school district.

But voters only had one question for him.

“Do you support Ryan Walters?”

Walters, the state Superintendent of Public Instruction, has been called Oklahoma’s “culture-warrior-in-chief” as he flirted with groups like Moms for Liberty and Libs of TikTok founder Chaya Raichik. And in Tulsa, he’d found his biggest battleground.

Croisant said he’d tell people, no, he didn’t support Walters. In fact, he’d push back against Walters’ interference in local education.

“And as soon as I said that, they’d say ‘You’ve got my vote,’ and shut the door,” Croisant told The Frontier. 

Croisant won re-election this week, defeating challenger Teresa Peña by a 55% margin, nearly 2,400 votes. In the races for two other seats, left-leaning candidates Sarah Smith, who defeated Maria Seidler, and Calvin Moniz, who defeated Kandee Washington, won by wide margins as well.

“What I heard from voters, and this was across party lines, was that they felt like when Walters was attacking (Tulsa Public Schools,) he was attacking them. He was attacking their city and the schools they graduated from,” Croisant said. “They took it personally.”

Walters, a Republican and former history teacher in McAlester, was elected overwhelmingly in 2022 after briefly serving Gov. Kevin Stitt as Oklahoma’s Secretary of Education. He replaced former Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, a term-limited Republican who switched parties to run for governor against Stitt as a Democrat.

While Stitt had battled with former Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist, primarily over coronavirus pandemic restrictions and school shutdowns, Walters quickly upped the ante.

Walters threatened a state takeover of Tulsa schools, calling the district “plagued with scandal.” Walters led the charge when the state board lowered the district’s accreditation in 2022 for allegedly violating a state law banning the teaching of some race and gender concepts. The board didn’t review underlying evidence before the vote, instead relying on a recommendation from staff that later proved to be inaccurate. Walters pushed for Gist’s removal and threatened the district not to “test” him. She ultimately resigned last year, hoping to stave off a potential takeover, saying she had a “broken heart.” She was replaced by Dr. Ebony Johnson, who Walters initially criticized before taking a softer tone after Stitt said to “give her a chance.”

Walters’ spokesman at the State Department of Education did not respond to requests for comment from The Frontier. 

Walters cast a long shadow over the election in Tulsa’s District 2, said Moniz, who will replace outgoing school board member Diamond Marshall. Turnout is historically low in this part of east Tulsa and only 649 votes were cast this week

“When I talked to voters, I heard two things,” Moniz told The Frontier. “First, people were surprised there was an election coming, and second, they wanted to know if I’d push back against a state takeover of TPS, and whether I agreed with Walters’ policies, which I do not.”

Moniz said he attended candidate forums, and would speak on stage about ending chronic absenteeism, which has plagued the school district. He would talk about getting the board to work together and focus on students. He talked about the need to support teachers and families, all things he said would “unlock TPS’ potential.”

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And when the forums ended, parents would talk to him in the parking lot. Time after time, they wanted to talk about Walters.

The day after his win, Moniz told The Frontier he believed “voters spoke” against Walters on Election Day.

“I think Tulsans voiced their voice, and they said we don’t want this in our backyard,” Moniz said. “We know what’s best for Tulsa and we’ll vote for people who will put in guard rails to protect our school and students.”

Smith said she hopes Election Day sends a message that the school board, which will officially add the new members April 15, needs to focus more on students and less on politics.

“I’m hopeful we can move past the last couple of years,” she said. “I think that’s what voters have shown they want.”

Charity Marcus, a political strategist who helped Elena Ashley – a Walters disciple and divisive Tulsa school board member herself – defeat incumbent Shawna Keller in 2022, was tabbed to lead Peña’s campaign.

Marcus said Peña, who taught and worked in schools for three decades, was “far from” a Walters supporter, but the moniker stuck. Janice Danforth, a Bixby resident and Walters supporter who leads Tulsa County’s Moms For Liberty chapter, personally urged voters to support Peña in a Facebook post.

Did Walters hurt Peña’s chances?

“Definitely,” Marcus said. She said she looked at voters in the district and found that while the district was 53% Republican, “Walters lost there by 4,000 votes (in 2022.)”

“Republicans did not vote for him,” she told The Frontier. “Dang near every door we knocked on, all they wanted to know was what her stance on Ryan was.”

Marcus said they told voters Peña didn’t know Moms For Liberty and didn’t know Walters. It was Walters’ comment calling the state teacher’s union “terrorists” that motivated Peña to run in the first place.

“She didn’t want to outright ban books, and she wanted to maintain local control of the district,” Marcus said. But once Peña was tied to Walters, it was impossible to shake.

“I really feel she was mischaracterized,” Marcus said. “She would get asked about Walters at every interview, every forum, every door we knocked, and her answer never changed. She didn’t know him, she was running because she cared about Tulsa, about the students and teachers. But the question kept getting asked over and over and eventually that’s all anyone knew about her.”

This article first appeared on The Frontier and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Dylan Has Two Kids, Three Dogs, And No Time To Himself. He's Fueled By QuikTrip And Twitter. Contact: Dylan@Readfrontier.com

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