Austin ISD Doesn't Have Much Choice in TEA Deal, Attorney Tells Board

Either they agree to terms, or a conservator will force them

Christine Badillo, legal counsel for Austin ISD, explains that the district will likely have to follow directives in the deal whether or not they agree to it (Screenshot via Austin ISD)

For the third time in a row, parents called in to a meeting of Austin ISD’s board of trustees to demand the board reject the deal proposed by the Texas Education Agency to fix the district’s special education crisis. But the district’s legal counsel has made clear that little choice exists.

A message from parent Sarah McKenna was typical. “This proposal will not fix the problem [and] sets the district up for a full takeover, rather than supporting the district’s special education department,” McKenna said.

The TEA’s proposed deal, announced on Aug. 31, came in response to the requests of district leaders, who have asked the agency not to appoint a conservator to take control of the district’s special education services. The deal requires AISD to accept a monitor appointed by TEA who will attend district meetings and report back to TEA; adopt a “Lone Star Governance” model for board meetings; dedicate 50% of the meetings to the discussion of “student outcomes” (seemingly test scores); and complete the backlog of evaluations of students seeking special ed services by Jan. 31 of next year.

It was clear from the trustees’ comments that they have heard the community’s concerns but are still collecting information. “What I get a lot of is, ‘Just say no, don’t do it,’” said Trustee Candace Hunter, speaking to Christine Badillo, legal counsel for the district. “But help our community understand that this is a process we are working through. It is not binary, right?”

“Yeah, it is a binary,” Badillo responded. “You’re either going to say yes or say no.” She went on to explain that if the board agrees to the deal it will have to try to meet its requirements. If it doesn’t agree to the deal, it will receive a conservator who will, in all likelihood, insist on the same requirements. A monitor, as the district would agree to have in place if they accept the TEA deal, can offer recommendations. “A conservator tells you what to do,” Badillo said.

“So the upshot of that is, everything in this proposed order, you can either agree to do it, or you can not agree to do it and TEA will bring someone in and they will make you do it. That’s the simplest way to put it,” Badillo said.

Much of the Sept. 14 meeting was given over to a discussion of “Lone Star Governance,” one of the central demands in the deal that sets out a framework for how to conduct board meetings. Lone Star Governance is a system created outside the state that TEA is pushing on public schools across Texas that requires that school board trustees, in the public meetings that constitute everything they do to manage their districts, strive to spend 50% of their time discussing “student outcomes.” What are student outcomes? As defined by Lone Star Governance, they are, essentially, test scores.

Trustees have noted that much of the crucial work they do – setting budgets, managing human resources – does not seem to fall under the definition. Trustee Lynn Boswell asked Ashley Paz, an expert on Lone Star Governance with the Council of the Great City Schools, to help clarify.

“I'm hearing from people, ‘Well, our budget is about student outcomes, and whether we have full staffing is about student outcomes, our buildings with the bond that we recently passed that our community supported so strongly and helped us craft, that relates to student outcomes. … Can you help people understand what you mean when you say ‘student outcomes’?”

“So, a budget is not going to be a student outcome,” Paz answered. “Your facilities are not going to be student outcomes. Those are all means to improving student outcomes, they are definitely things that are important in making improvement in student outcomes happen. But they themselves are not student outcomes.” Paz went on to say that student performance on state tests counts as student outcomes, as does their work at UIL competitions and sports contests.

Paz then spent considerable time reassuring the board members, telling them that she was confident they would satisfy the TEA’s requirements swiftly if they choose to do so. But then Trustee Kevin Foster came back to the question about student outcomes.

“Does this discussion count towards student outcomes?” Foster asked Paz.

She waited 10 seconds, then asked her own question: “Um, is this a public hearing or is this just a special called meeting?”

“This is just one of our standard board information sessions,” Board President Arati Singh replied.

“So generally, I think that the answer is going to be no, because we're talking about what the adults are going to be doing, not what students are able to do.”

“Madam president,” Foster said, addressing Singh, “in the interest of time, I'd like to move to the next agenda item.”

And with that, the discussion of the TEA proposal came to an abrupt halt and the board moved on to other business.

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