The superintendent of Tulsa, Okla., announced on Tuesday that she planned to step down, in an 11th-hour attempt to stop the state from taking over the largest school district in Oklahoma.
The superintendent, Deborah A. Gist, and the school system in Tulsa, one of Oklahoma’s rare Democratic footholds, had become targets of Ryan Walters, the state’s divisive schools chief who is known for his conservative politics and provocative statements.
Mr. Walters, a Republican who took office in January, has raised a litany of complaints against the Tulsa schools, including low test scores and financial mismanagement, and has battled over cultural and religious issues.
Questioning Dr. Gist’s leadership, he threatened to take over the school district, which could include appointing a new superintendent, and even said that he had not ruled out revoking accreditation entirely — which would force schools to close. Tulsa public schools serve nearly 34,000 students, with a student population that is 80 percent economically disadvantaged and majority Hispanic and Black.
Ahead of a State Board of Education meeting to discuss Tulsa’s fate on Thursday, Dr. Gist wrote in a letter to the Tulsa community that stepping aside would be the district’s best chance to avert a takeover.
“It is no secret that our state superintendent has had an unrelenting focus on our district and specifically on me, and I am confident that my departure will help to keep our democratically elected leadership and our team in charge of our schools,” she wrote.
Dr. Gist, who has been Tulsa’s superintendent since 2015, said in the letter that the Tulsa school board would consider an interim superintendent, Ebony Johnson, a top district administrator, to replace her on Wednesday night.
It was unclear what state officials might do in response.
“I am optimistic that this is a step in the right direction,” Mr. Walters said in a statement on Tuesday night. “Financial transparency and academic outcomes must come next.”
In response to questions about how Dr. Gist’s resignation could affect the state’s plans, a spokesman for Mr. Walters, Matt Langston, said, “Everything is still on the table.”
State takeovers, similar to what has happened this year in Houston, are more common in districts with low-income students and students of color, yet research suggests that takeovers, on average, do not improve student outcomes.
Tulsa public schools are some of the lowest performing in the state, and performance was hampered by the coronavirus pandemic, when schools were slow to open. In 2022, just 8 percent of students were proficient in math and 11 percent were proficient in English language arts. The results were about on par with Oklahoma City, another large, urban district with high levels of poverty.
But Tulsa’s history and politics — a blue city in a red state — has also set it apart in a state where the teaching of race is restricted.
Tulsa’s accreditation was first downgraded last year, over teacher training on implicit bias, which officials said violated state restrictions on how to teach about race and history.
How to address race in schools carries particular weight in Tulsa.
The city, first settled by Native Americans, became the site of one of the deadliest episodes of racial violence in American history, when, in 1921, a questionable accusation that a Black man had assaulted a white woman touched off mass violence. White rioters destroyed Tulsa’s prosperous Greenwood district, known as Black Wall Street, and the clash left as many as 300 people dead.
Mr. Walters, who opposes critical race theory, drew criticism this summer for saying that people should not be judged as racist because of their skin color, in response to a question about the Tulsa Race Massacre. He later said that his answer was misrepresented and emphasized that he supported the teaching of the massacre in schools.
In her letter on Tuesday, Dr. Gist noted the city’s history and suggested that a state takeover would add to a long history of harm, “depriving Tulsans of their collective voice over their schools.”
More recently, Mr. Walters has focused on an embezzlement case, in which a former Tulsa schools administrator is accused of misusing hundreds of thousands of dollars.
He has also defended a Tulsa school board member who was criticized for leading a prayer at a public high school graduation. In a news conference, he said, “There is no more fine example today that religious liberty is under assault than what’s happening here in Tulsa public schools.”