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What’s Next For Austin ISD's Special Education Department?

Empty hallways at Bedichek Middle School in South Austin.
Gabriel C. Pérez

After months of criticism about a backlog of special education evaluations, Austin ISD announced Friday that it's laying off all the special education staff in its district office as part of a reorganization.

The district said the reorganization is needed to help correct a “toxic work environment” that led many of the people who do these evaluations to quit — one reason for the backlog.

Elizabeth Casas, AISD’s chief academic officer, said she wants to create a “clean slate” in the department. Under the district's plan, all current special ed employees will be gone by the summer. They can reapply for new positions, but nothing is guaranteed.

One major question being asked by the AISD community: What does this mean for the pending evaluations?

Evaluators Let Go

Before a student can get special education services, a professional must evaluate them to see whether they have any learning disabilities or what would help them learn better. In the last two years, employees qualified to do these evaluations have left in droves.

Those who left said the previous executive and assistant directors created a work environment where there was bullying, unreasonable caseloads and logistical changes that made evaluations take longer than they should.

With its "clean slate" plan, the district is getting rid of some of the leaders who may have created the toxic environment, but it's also getting rid of evaluators.

Many employees – who asked not to be named – told KUT that the department-wide reorganization feels like retaliation against staff who were speaking out about the hostile work environment. Two days before AISD announced the reorganization, district leaders presented the SPED staff with the results of a climate and culture survey that showed only 11% of employees would recommend working in the department to someone else.

When Haley Wisdom was notified her job was being eliminated, she put in her resignation.

“I think it's ludicrous that you can acknowledge that people have been subjected to a toxic work environment for years … and then turn around and instead fire everyone," she said. "I think that it was dishonest and dishonorable."

A 'Scapegoat' For The Backlog

On Friday, Casas said the district wants to catch up with hundreds of evaluations by July 1.

She told KUT in an email that current staff — who were told Friday that they are being let go — are handling about half of the evaluations in the queue. The other half is being done by outside contractors.

Wisdom said there is a nationwide shortage of people who are qualified to do this kind of work.

“I can't see any explanation for the evaluation staff being subject to termination except for the fact that the district wants and needs a scapegoat for the backlog in evaluations,” she said.

KUT asked AISD the specific reason evaluators were included in the reorganization, but the district did not reply by deadline.

Got a tip? Email Claire McInerny at Follow her on Twitter @ClaireMcInerny.

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Claire McInerny is a former education reporter for KUT.
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