AISD Offered TEA Deal That Could Lead to Takeover

Reading the TEA leaves


Image by Zeke Barbaro / Getty Images

The Texas Education Agency's takeover of the Houston Independent School Dis­trict has been creepy. After the state agency threw out the district's elected board and appointed a new one, they chose last month to turn some libraries into disciplinary centers, firing librarians in the process. Shortly after that, the new TEA-appointed superintendent put on a musical for teachers (with mandatory attendance), which featured actors reading lines about how the new super would fix the district.

Last week, TEA turned its attention to Austin, submitting a proposed deal to fix Austin ISD's special education crisis. But the deal seems to be setting the district up for a Houston-style takeover – laying out conditions that will be difficult to meet and are sometimes vague. If AISD accepts the deal but doesn't meet the conditions, it would allow TEA to replace the elected board in about two years.

"All interviews about TEA are through the District," the Chronicle was told last week, when the proposed deal first dropped – which makes sense. District leaders have a difficult decision before them and will want to handle the messaging delicately. Still, hints about what trustees think of the proposal were on display at an Aug. 31 board meeting, in the remarks of Board President Arati Singh, a practiced communicator. "The proposal does come with conditions that will need to be carefully reviewed by our district leaders, board members, and counsel," Singh said. "We want to ensure that any requirements on our district staff, leadership, and trustees will not interfere with the momentum we've established in addressing special education in our district. We must also ensure that our community's values are preserved."

Notice the following things: TEA's proposal "will need to be carefully reviewed"; district leaders are questioning whether its conditions may "interfere" with their efforts to fix special education; and the proposed deal might, it seems, violate "our community's values."

The deal seems to be setting the district up for a Houston-style takeover – laying out conditions that will be difficult to meet and are sometimes vague.

Before we go further, let's review the backstory of the proposed deal for those who are not up to speed: AISD is required by state law to evaluate students who request special education services and get back to them within 30 days with a decision on whether the services will be provided. However, during the COVID pandemic, most of the staff who perform these evaluations quit. Parents complained to TEA that evaluations for their children were taking months, and TEA found that AISD was in violation of state law.

AISD leaders responded with a plan to fix the issues, and the agency gave them a year to implement it. But by March of 2023, the agency declared that AISD was still out of compliance and said it would install a conservator – an official appointed by TEA – to take over the district's special education services. AISD's trustees – several newly elected – appealed again and asked TEA to consider something less drastic.


Austin ISD Board President Arati Singh at the Aug. 31 meeting (Screenshot via Austin ISD)

The proposed deal from TEA is that less-drastic step – or so it is presented, anyway. In fact, it's a very aggressive, high-stakes proposal. TEA is asking, among other things, that AISD:

1) Accept a monitor, an official appointed by TEA, who will sit in on board meetings and report back to the agency on the district's progress in fixing special education.

2) Revise a slew of its operating procedures to concentrate power in the hands of the superintendent.

3) Hire a "Lone Star Governance coach" (whatever that is) to help the district "create the governance conditions" for the district to come into compliance with state law.

4) Pay for an outside audit of its special education procedures.

5) Dedicate half of its time during board meetings to discussing student outcomes.

Then there are the special education evaluations. In the appendix of the agreement, TEA requires AISD to agree to finish the evaluations of 1,159 students who have applied for special education services by Jan. 31 of next year. It's a very ambitious requirement, but one that district officials believe they can meet. However, for context, AISD got into trouble in the first place because, according to TEA's April report, it was unable to complete 624 evaluations in 19 months. Now, the district is promising to complete twice as many evaluations in just five months. (AISD has, however, hired additional staff to focus on these evaluations.)

And the kicker: If AISD agrees to the deal but is unable to fulfill its terms, the contract specifies that the district "waives any right to a hearing before the State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH) or action in a state or federal court regarding the appointment of a conservator." In other words, it will get one automatically. And from that point, AISD will have two years to remove the conservator before TEA is able to completely take over the district, à la Houston.

The district has until Sept. 29 to make a decision on the proposed deal. The board will publicly review it at a meeting on Thursday, Sept. 7.

Editor's note Friday, Sept. 8, 3:32pm: This story has been updated to correct that TEA announced the plans for a conservator in March 2023, not April. The Chronicle regrets the error.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Arati Singh, Austin ISD, Texas Education Agency, Houston ISD, special education

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