TEA Takes Over Eastside Charter School

The state steps in at the Texas Academy of Excellence

TAE Superintendent Dolores Hillyer
TAE Superintendent Dolores Hillyer (Photo By Michael May)

Responding to growing evidence that East Austin charter school Texas Academy of Excellence faced total financial meltdown, the Texas Education Agency last week assigned a management team to oversee the school's operations. The three-member team met with school officials Thursday and Friday to determine how to dig the school out of a morass that included the school's accounts being frozen, teachers not being paid, alleged problems with the school's facility, and a staggering debt load. On Monday, the academy filed for bankruptcy in federal court.

In a Feb. 16 letter justifying her action, Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley cited debts including $40,260 owed to the Teachers' Retirement Fund, $45,000 in back rent, and $21,000 in late utilities. The school's next funding check from the state, due Feb. 25, is only $167,520, most of which will go straight to the IRS to satisfy a $137,588 levy for back taxes. The "facts and circumstances indicate severe difficulties at Texas Academy of Excellence, in both finance and governance," Neeley wrote. "An immediate need for intervention is evident."

According to Jim Thompson, the TEA's senior counsel, the team will not recommend any action until they've gotten a clear sense of the school's financial situation. (A separate audit team has also been assigned to research the situation.) "The team's primary task is to assess the situation and look at books and financial records and assemble a picture and report back to the commission so we can understand the scope of the cash flow problem and other issues," he said.

Thompson said that ensuring the Academy's teachers get paid is a priority, though he was unsure when funds would be available. Employees still cannot legitimately cash the checks they got at the beginning of February, due to a freeze on the school's accounts initiated by the school's former landlord. However, many have gotten cash through check-cashing businesses that do not ascertain ahead of time whether sufficient funds are available. The school's Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing may allow the lifting of the freeze. Nor could Thompson predict what kinds of long-term solutions the team might recommend once payment plans are worked out with creditors, although he said the TEA may "make recommendations with regards to changes in management or systems or anything else that needs to be improved to prevent the situation from reoccurring."

Texas Academy of Excellence representatives, including Superintendent Dolores Hillyer, did not return phone calls for comment. Management team member Jack Cockrill says that the team has no plans to address the school's consistently low academic performance, but he added that the financial conundrum is not affecting the academy's ability to educate students. (Test scores at the academy lag behind not only state averages but also those of conventional schools with comparable demographics. The academy's enrollment is more than 90% African-American, and most students are eligible for free or reduced lunches.)

"We are concerned about the academic program," said Cockrill. "But I personally have been in every classroom [Friday] morning, and am pleased to report that the students are working hard. Learning is taking place. Teachers are teaching. Hopefully that will continue as we deal with the crisis in the financial area."

Got something to say? The Chronicle welcomes opinion pieces on any topic from the community. Submit yours now at austinchronicle.com/opinion.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Charter Schools
Charter School Loophole Vote Pushed Another Week
Charter School Loophole Vote Pushed Another Week
Seemingly settled issue of planning and land use for charter schools drags out

Richard Whittaker, June 24, 2016

Pulling From TEA Report, Ratliff Argues Public Schools Better Than Charters
Pulling From TEA Report, Ratliff Argues Public Schools Better Than Charters
Fed education leaders counter SBOE vice chair on charters

Richard Whittaker, July 24, 2015

More by Rachel Proctor May
Chartering Middle School
Chartering Middle School
Hoping to reach middle-schoolers who could go off track in a regular school setting, district moves forward with charter school plans

June 2, 2006

TAKS Scores Show Both Improvement and Trouble for AISD
TAKS Scores Show Both Improvement and Trouble for AISD
Numbers down for the crucial third and 11th grades

May 26, 2006


Charter Schools, Texas Academy of Excellence, TAE, Texas Education Agency, TEA, charter school, Shirley Neeley, Dolores Hillyer, Jack Cockrill, Jim Thompson

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Behind the scenes at The Austin Chronicle

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle