The Texas Education Agency now has the green light to move forward with plans to appoint individuals to track whether Austin ISD is making state-mandated improvements to special education services.
The AISD school board voted 8 to 1 on Tuesday to accept an alternative plan the TEA proposed to ensure the district addresses long-standing problems, such as its backlog of special education evaluations. Trustees voted on a tweaked version of the proposal the district received from the agency Monday.
School Board Vice President Kevin Foster was the only trustee to vote against the plan. He said it threatened to erode local control without actually improving services for students with disabilities.
“It’s a local matter with national implications because it’s happening all over the nation, where folks don’t like school boards,” he said. “And when I say folk, I’m not talking about everyday folk that voted us into office. I’m talking about folks who are operating in narrow, elite … halls at the state and federal levels.”
While the other trustees voted in favor of the agreement, they described it as a difficult decision.
“We’re deciding between two options tonight: accepting TEA sanctions by force or by choice. It’s important to note that the district is in this position because it failed students,” School Board Secretary Lynn Boswell said.
Boswell pointed out decisions made at the state level have also affected the district’s ability to serve students. For example, she said, Texas underfunds special education statewide by $2 billion.
“That gap in Austin ISD this year is more than $82 million,” she said.
Trustee Kathryn Whitley Chu dealt with the backlog firsthand, spending months working to secure an evaluation for her daughter. She said she decided to approve the plan Tuesday because it was AISD’s best shot at maintaining local control and continuing its efforts to improve special education services.
“Public schools governed by elected school boards that accept and retain all students are essential to our democracy,” she said. “We must preserve this, we must exist, and we must fulfill the promise to provide every student with the opportunity to achieve their full potential.”
If the school board did not approve the agreement with TEA, state education officials could have implemented their original plan to appoint a conservator or team of conservators to manage Austin ISD’s special education department directly. The TEA first announced the special education conservatorship in the spring after an investigation found the district was violating state and federal law by failing to meet the needs of students with disabilities.
One of the main focuses of the investigation was the ongoing backlog of evaluations. The evaluations help determine whether students have disabilities and, if so, which services and supports they’re entitled to. Shortly before the TEA released the investigation in late March, Austin ISD had just over 1,800 overdue evaluations.
But district officials have said they’ve significantly reduced the backlog since the spring. As of late August, 488 evaluations were overdue.
Interim Superintendent Matias Segura told reporters after the vote Tuesday that the backlog from January is down by about 72%.
“I think it’s just a reflection of the systems that we’re putting in place working,” he said. “So we’re moving in the right direction, but there’s still a lot of work to do.”
The TEA investigation had also found that even after the district evaluated students, it was failing to provide the services they needed.
Austin ISD ended up appealing the proposed special education conservatorship in April and asking instead for a monitor, which is a less severe form of state intervention. Conservators have the power to compel district staff, the superintendent and board to take certain actions. Monitors, on the other hand, can make recommendations but they’re primarily tasked with reporting back to the TEA on whether a district is doing what it’s supposed to do to improve.
Months after that appeal, the TEA outlined an alternative plan that would install state-appointed monitors instead of conservators. But it included aggressive goals and placed restrictions on the school board that raised concerns for trustees and community members. For example, the proposed agreement required the board to undergo TEA-approved training and spend 50% of their time during board meetings discussing student outcomes.
The plan still allowed Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath to appoint conservators if he and the monitors determine Austin ISD is not doing what it’s supposed to when it comes to improving special education services. Under the proposal, Austin ISD waives its right to appeal a conservatorship.
The latest version of the plan has a few key differences from what the TEA proposed on Aug. 30. For example, it gives the board more leeway in terms of the percentage of time they spend discussing student outcomes and how they report that information publicly.
Another important change has to do with what happens if the education commissioner and monitors agree Austin ISD is failing to take corrective action. Instead of immediately being subject to conservators, the district now has a 10-day period to address issues the TEA finds.
“We wanted to have some cushion to be able to meet with TEA and make corrections,” School Board President Arati Singh said. “So, I’m very appreciative that they gave us that.”
If the commissioner finds the district is still not compliant after that, he can appoint conservators. And, even under the newest agreement, Austin ISD waives its right to appeal a conservatorship.
Still, Singh and Segura said they believe the district will be able to comply with the order and avoid conservators. And, Segura added, it’s a relief that the district now has a roadmap to follow.
“Once I have known milestones, which are included in the order, I can now clear the path for success,” he said.
One of the milestones outlined in the agreement is that Austin ISD must finish any outstanding evaluations from the 2022-2023 school year by Jan. 31. It must also determine the compensatory services students who were waiting for an evaluation are entitled to by then.
The agreement the school board approved also requires AISD to conduct staff training, get a third-party audit, and produce a publicly available report on the “state of special education” in the district.
It’s not yet clear who the monitor or monitors tracking Austin ISD’s compliance with the order will be. Depending on a school district’s situation, Segura said, a monitor may be placed within the district or could just check in.
“I don’t have details on it just yet,” he said, “but we are anticipating that it would be someone that’s working closely with our special education department, up to being located within our department.”
A TEA spokesperson told KUT the agency will officially appoint the monitor team early next week. Their exact role will also be outlined in a letter to Austin ISD.