ICYMI: Former OSDE Staffer, Hired by Ryan Walters, worried “public schools won’t survive rest of his term”

by Laurel Powell

In jaw-dropping interview with News 4, former OSDE employee Pamela Smith-Gordon, who describes herself as a conservative Republican, details that an absent Walters and massive mismanagement at the department resulted in millions of dollars of lost funding for Oklahoma schools

Smith-Gordon on Walters: “I don’t know of any other person that can actually get paid for a job and never be there.”

Late last week, Oklahoma City’s News 4, aired a segment featuring the first ever interview with someone who was chosen by State Superintendent Ryan Walters to serve in his administration–only to resign because of his lack of leadership and complete mismanagement. During the jaw-dropping interview, Pamela Smith-Gordon, who has spent decades working in Oklahoma public school and describes herself as a conservative Christian Republican, details a number of deeply concerning experiences from her time at the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE). Key takeaways from the interview are below:

Public Education is Smith-Gordon’s passion and career:

  • Smith Gordon has worked in public education for more than three decades, and was “was once the youngest woman to ever serve as a superintendent of a public school district in Oklahoma.”
  • She’s spent most of her career working in rural, public schools, where she learned how important funding from OSDE is to rural districts: “When you don’t have a stoplight in your town, you might have one gas station. That doesn’t provide you a lot of tax money from your communities.”

Smith-Gordon was a huge fan of Walters and excited to serve in his administration:

  • “[Walters] ran on conservative issues,” she said. “He said he wanted to get back to the foundations of education. I’ve been an educator for years and years and years. That is the key.”
  • “she was ecstatic when she learned Walters hired her to become OSDE’s Program Manager of Grant Development and Compliance – a critical department head.”
  • “I was excited about, to get back to those conservative values of—when I say biblical worldview—I’m thinking honesty, integrity, accountability, all of those things that that make for a for good school and for a good administrator, transparency, all of those things. I was truly excited to be part of this administration.”

Quickly though, things soured. Smith-Gordon, a department leader, never got a meeting with Walters, despite asking numerous times. When she tried to catch him at his office, the hall to his office was “behind locked doors with an armed guard.”

  • “It was very important to me to know his intent from his own mouth so I could be successful in my position to carry out that intent and to ensure that my office would be successful. The first 10 days came and went, and after almost every day saying, am ‘I going to get to meet with him today?’ And every day being told that he’s not there, I was kind of concerned because it was obvious there was chaos within the department there.”
  • After numerous attempts to schedule a meeting with Walters to no avail, she tried stopping by his office, but “His hall to his office is behind locked doors with an armed guard. You were not allowed to go down his hall, much less enter his office,” she said. “Now, there were a select few that were graced with his presence. But department heads were not.”

Only a select few people were able to meet with Walters, including his former campaign manager, who was hired by OSDE with a 6-figure salary despite listing Austin, Texas, as his home.

  • According to Smith-Gordon, only Walters chief of staff (Jenna Thomas, who has since resigned), his legal team, OSDE spokesperson Dan Isett, and his campaign manager turned chief advisor Matt Langston, were able to meet with Walters face to face.
  • Smith-Gordon said she never saw Langston at OSDE in her four months there. “Langston lists Austin, Texas as his home on his social media profiles.”

Smith-Gordon was denied needed access to a crucial piece of software that she said cost the state’s schools millions of dollars.

  • In order to request grants through the federal government, Smith-Gordon needed access to software that could only be requested by the State Superintendent. She eventually got a meeting with the Chief of Staff, who assured her she’d get access to one of the programs. But “Weeks without access to the software, turned into months. We ended up losing a couple of million and that concerned me,” Smith-Gordon said.
  • “I couldn’t get a signature. And it wasn’t just my department. There were many departments that couldn’t get signatures on time. And that’s great angst when you are waiting ‘til—not even the 11th—but the 12th hour to get a signature, you’re going to lose some funding.”

When Smith-Gordon tried to raise these concerns with Walters, she was told he would “never see [her]”

  • “[Walters] wasn’t concerned,” she said. “I mean, that couple of million was safety programs for schools, mental health programs for schools. These students were not being served. And when I asked several times to speak with him and even started emailing him directly, I was called to an office of someone that had his ear and told that he would never see (me), to me stop contacting him, that he was too busy.”

Smith-Gordon ended up resigning because she realized OSDE was “not serving schools” and was “losing money.”

  • “I realized that we were not, we were not serving schools and we weren’t going to serve schools because there was no access to the man that, that had this the ability to provide those services,” she said. “So that’s when I, that’s when I left. When I realized that that we were losing money.”

Smith-Gordon was “terribly embarrassed” about how Walters came after Tulsa Public Schools [TPS]

  • Since entering office, Walters has consistently attacked the Tulsa Public School system and its former superintendent Dr. Deborah Gist. He publicly called for her resignation and would regularly criticize TPS’s performance in public settings, even threatening its accreditation.
  • Smith-Gordon: “our job should have been to say, ‘Look, Tulsa, we’re concerned about this and this and this. What can we do to help you? Because we are worried about you losing accreditation,’ and then work together. But instead we did not do that. Instead, we humiliated. …We humiliated teachers that had put years into these kids. We humiliated kids. We humiliated parents. That’s not what we do.”

Many times when Smith-Gordon tried to meet with Walters, he was traveling and on TV; Walters has come under fire for hiring an out-of-state PR firm to book him national media appearances on the taxpayers’ dime.

  • “I do know that he was on TV often, many times when I needed to get in touch with him—he was traveling,” Smith-Gordon said. “It just wasn’t a good situation. I don’t know of any other person that can actually get paid for a job and never be there.”
  • “He was elected by Oklahomans to turn Oklahoma schools around, to get us out of that 48th percentile,” Smith-Gordon said. “Why in the world would we need a PR firm to get us national recognition? When we’re good enough in Oklahoma, other states will say, ‘What are you doing?’ They will give us recognition. They will seek us and give us recognition. We don’t have to pay somebody to get us out in the spotlight.”

Smith-Gordon is worried about the future of Oklahoma’s public schools, and particularly its rural schools→which she said may be Walters’ true intentions.

  • “Walters is only a little more than a year into his four-year term. That scares Smith-Gordon. “Our schools did not receive allocations, some of them, not until January,” she said. “If we do this for the next three years, our schools will cave. Department heads have left and there are departments that are being closed down… all of those departments were utilized to answer questions for our schools. If we don’t have people in those departments that can answer questions, how are schools supposed to know?”’
  • “If it’s not any better than this year, I think our rural schools will cave,” she said. “I think that’s probably the purpose—that if we have less schools, then the monies can go to privates and charters.”

“The fire is coming from inside the house at the Oklahoma State Department of Education, and Ryan Walters lit the match,” said HRC spokesperson Laurel Powell. “As this shocking interview reveals, Walters’ incompetence and lack of leadership isn’t just leading to a mass exodus of staff, it’s costing the state’s schools millions of dollars of potential funding. The Oklahoma Legislature must remove Ryan Walters from office–or Oklahoma’s schools and students will continue to pay the price.”


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