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As Tulsa Public Schools was honored by the U.S. Department of Education for its responsible COVID-19 policies, Gov. Kevin Stitt’s communications director and his staffers busily dragged the district and its superintendent, Dr. Deborah Gist, on Twitter. 

The governor’s comms teams usually do not go after major Oklahoma school systems when they receive national honors, but since Gist followed federal guidelines rather than following Republican talking points, here we are.

Along with school districts in New York, Ohio and California, TPS was feted during the National Safe Schools Reopening Summit held Wednesday by Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. The event spotlighted schools that effectively kept students both safe and educated during the height of the pandemic.

Opinion by George D. Lang

At the event, Gist said the physical and emotional safety of TPS students was paramount in its decision to remain in a remote learning posture. During the first week of February, TPS students returned to in-person learning. 

“We remained committed to making sure our students and our team members and all of their families were safe,” Gist said during the event. “And when we described ‘safe,’ we meant, of course, from a COVID perspective, but we also meant emotionally safe and mentally safe and safe in many other ways. 

“Throughout the pandemic, we’ve been committed to being data-wise and science-informed, and we’ve been working really closely with medical professionals and reading every study and following every release and every report, the data that was coming out both locally, nationally and internationally,” she said.

When an education journalist mentioned TPS’s participation in the event, Stitt communications director Charlie Hannema took time out of his busy schedule to throw garbage at the second-largest school district in the state.  

“Surely this is a typo,” Hannema wrote on Twitter. “Tulsa? Is there another Tulsa somewhere, or are we talking about the one in Oklahoma that was weeks behind everyone else and is hemorrhaging students?”

Stitt’s strategic communications director, Carly Atchison, was similarly dismissive toward TPS’ recognition. 

“TPS getting lauded by a liberal administration who takes its cues on when to reopen schools from teachers unions is not something to crow about,” Atchison tweeted. 

This was not an opening salvo — Stitt’s war on Gist and TPS has raged since Stitt began pushing for a return to in-person education last year. On February 1, Gist wrote on her Facebook account that Stitt was acting like a “bully” toward the district. 

Bully

“Our governor is a bully,” Gist wrote. “A bully wants attention, and they like to get a reaction from you. They thrive from the conflict they create. So, one way to handle those who bully verbally is to not react. If they do not get the reaction they want, they may move on to another target.

“With our governor, I tried that,” she wrote. “For months, he targeted our district and our decisions with inaccurate and uninformed statements. He never once reached out to us directly. I tried, without success, to reach out to him. So, we have kept our heads high and continued making difficult decisions on behalf of students, our team, and their families. We have stayed focused on what mattered most.”

It is simply bizarre for a governor’s staff to spray invective at a school district when it is being recognized for its leadership during a public health crisis. This episode has all the earmarks of a political campaign rather than the day-to-day process of running the state and explaining gubernatorial policies to the press and the public. 

Clearly, Stitt is on a wartime footing going into the 2022 election. Over the course of his term, Stitt has done precious little coalition building, and according to a December 2020 poll by Amber Integrated of Oklahoma City, only 40 percent of Oklahomans want him to run for reelection. 

It only makes sense that he would bring in operatives like Atchison, a Virginian who most recently worked for the National Republican Congressional Committee. NRCC is essentially the verbal combat wing of the Republican Party, responsible for electing and reelecting Republicans and channeling resources to hotly contested seats. 

Trump without the cult

Stitt’s biggest problem is that he is Trump without the cult. He holds elephantine grudges but has few ride-or-die minions to help him go after his political foes. Crowds do not cheer him on when he goes after people like Gist. He just comes off as petty.

More than anything, Oklahomans want a governor who has their backs. Instead, he attacks the people who kept our children safe during the pandemic and then goes on The Adam Carolla Podcast to yammer about it to Carolla’s audience of aggrieved, Libertarian-leaning males.

“So, 98 percent of our schools were open the entire time, and there were a couple of the big school districts that I’ve just been hammering,” he told Carolla. “They’re finally open. Can you imagine trying to teach a first-grader to read via Zoom? I mean, it’s just unbelievable what we’ve done to this entire school year.”

What is unbelievable to this day is that Trump successfully turned a pandemic into a culture war, and Stitt used it as an opportunity to escalate his beef with public education. If Stitt were not so obsessed with his grievances, his approval rating might be higher going into his reelection effort.

Last Updated March 28, 2021, 9:08 AM by Brett Dickerson – Editor