Austin ISD Trustees Weigh Whether to Sign Risky TEA Deal

Austin ISD Trustee Kevin Foster speaks at the Sept. 7 meeting (Screenshot via Austin ISD)

In theory, the Texas Education Agency’s proposed deal with Austin ISD to improve the district’s special education programming is about evaluations – the backlog of special ed evaluations that the district has built up over the last few years, a backlog that has kept students who want those services from receiving them.

But if the deal is about the evaluations, why is TEA trying to force AISD to do so many other things?

Austin ISD’s board of trustees held a meeting on Sept. 7 to discuss the TEA’s proposed deal, and it was impossible to tell from their remarks whether they will ultimately agree to it. Several trustees expressed reservations. But they also expressed confidence that they could meet the TEA’s aggressive demands.

Trustee Ofelia Zapata probably spoke for many when she expressed her general frustration with the proposal. “I’m just bothered that TEA has not even acknowledged the work that we’ve done to address the problem,” Zapata said, referring to the district completing evaluations faster. “What if we challenge the deal? Because it’s just not fair.”

TEA announced in March that it planned to take over the district’s special education services by appointing a conservator after parents complained that the district was taking months to evaluate students requesting the services. District leaders asked the board to reconsider the appointment of a conservator in May. TEA responded with the current proposal on Aug. 30.

The proposal would require, among other things, that AISD accept a monitor appointed by TEA who will attend district meetings and report back to TEA; adopt a “Lone Star governance” model for board proceedings; dedicate 50% of the board’s meetings to the discussion of student outcomes; and complete all the currently requested evaluations of students seeking services by Jan. 31 of next year.

If the district is unable to meet the requirements, the deal specifies that a conservator – a manager who will take charge of the district’s special ed services – will be appointed immediately, and the district will forfeit its right to appeal.

The provision forbidding the district to appeal the TEA’s judgment has alarmed some in the school community. Some believe the agency is setting the district up to fail. The public comment portion of the Sept. 7 meeting was filled with parents urging the board to reject the deal, lest a conservator be appointed next February. Rejecting the deal could lead to the same outcome, however. This would be very disappointing, school officials said, because the district is on the cusp of fixing the problem that opened the door for TEA to intervene in the first place – it has hired more evaluators and is conducting evaluations at a very accelerated pace compared with earlier this year.

Board trustees expressed reservations about the deal’s requirement that the district dedicate 50% of its time in public meetings to the discussion of student outcomes, with some asking for clarification on what kind of conversation counts as being focused on “student outcomes.”

“Are considerations of student mental health – does that count as a conversation about student outcomes?” trustee Kevin Foster asked Christine Badillo, legal counsel for the district. Badillo replied that when TEA uses the term “student outcomes,” it is talking about test scores. “Setting your student outcome goals, your test scores – those kinds of things are what they consider student outcomes,” Badillo replied. She went on to say that conversations about school safety, or congratulating students for awards, also do not count as student outcomes. “So, 50 percent of our time focused on test scores?” Foster summed up, clearly dubious of the notion.

Badillo said that the Lone Star Governance coach that TEA wants the district to hire could help AISD answer what kind of topics would count as student outcomes. Such coaches are part of the “Lone Star Governance” protocol that TEA has created as a template for local school districts to use in conducting board meetings. However, the trustees wondered why TEA is requiring Lone Star Governance when the report it released in March did not raise any complaint about the way the board is operating.

“That’s a piece that’s part of the proposed plan but not part of the findings,” trustee David Kauffman pointed out. Trustee Noelito Lugo concurred: “In TEA’s March letter there was no evidence that governance was an issue.”

Indeed, TEA’s March letter focused on the backlog of evaluations. The number of students who needed evaluations eventually reached 3,085, Dr. Dru McGovern-Robinett, assistant superintendent of special education, told the board. But it’s now half that number – 1758 – and the number of kids being evaluated for services per month is rising dramatically.

This led several board members to express confidence that the district could comply with the terms of the TEA deal, if the board decides to take a risk and agree to it. “I’m very confident we can accomplish this, and I do not think it will keep us from accomplishing everything else we’ve laid out,” Superintendent Matias Segura said.

The board is expected to vote yea or nay on the deal at a meeting on Sept. 21.

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